It’s now fourteen months since Matteo Renzi’s ill-fated referendum on the Italian constitution, which led to his downfall as Prime Minister. And now, as I predicted after the referendum, an Italian general election has delivered a major boost to two parties which played a central role in unseating Renzi: the Lega (formerly Lega Nord) and the Five Star Movement (M5S). The former golden boy of the centre left saw the vote of his Democratic Party (PD) nosedive, and there are currently conflicting reports of whether he has resigned (again).
Hung parliaments and talk of multi-faceted coalitions are hardly unusual in Italy, but this particular result poses a series of new questions politically:
1) Will the League ditch its coalition with Berlusconi?
In its previous incarnation, as the regionally-restricted, sometimes secessionist, often scandalous Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini’s party was stuck as the junior partner to Silvio Berlusconi. But now, after a rebrand as a national party (hence the dropping of ‘Nord’), the radical right sidekick has outperformed the old master. Will Salvini and his colleagues stick with the centre-right coalition, given than it doesn’t have the seats to form a majority government, at least as currently constituted? Even if they stay put, the election result signals a shift in who has to answer to whom – but might they be tempted to go further and sever ties in favour of a new alliance that could offer them new opportunities? One senior party figure says “first we will talk with our coalition allies”. Emphasis on the “first”.
2) Is M5S going to have to enter government?
Ever since its foundation, M5S has been a peculiar beast. One of its many contradictions is that it has sometimes looked distinctly uncomfortable about the prospect of holding power, despite a great deal of enthusiastic rhetoric about how government ought to run. They’ve so far managed to avoid getting their hands dirty at a national level, not least because they don’t quite fit with either of the two would-be ruling coalitions. But now, as the largest party, can they really avoid it any longer? To govern they would need either a coalition or some kind of confidence and supply agreement, and that means getting into bed with other parties. The party has elements of left and right in its mindset and its personnel, which opens up all sorts of possibilities. The question is whether it would be willing to risk dirtying its insurgent reputation by laying down with more establishment figures like Berlusconi or Renzi, or alternatively whether it would be willing to strike a deal with the Lega, who bring plenty of their own problems in terms of some very controversial views on immigrants and the spectre of corruption scandals.
3) What does this mean for the Euro and the EU?
It’s true to say that both the League and M5S have espoused eurosceptic views on many occasions. Salvini has often pledged to “get rid of the Euro”, and M5S famously urged a referendum on membership of the single currency. But it would be a mistake to overplay this; while the League’s leader is still making critical noises, both parties have in recent months toned down their radicalism on the topic. Readers may recall that Marine Le Pen made a last-ditch attempt to do the same before her presidential run-off in France – the same logic of not frightening the horses too much applies in Italy, and the more moderate rhetoric was carefully deployed much longer before polling day. A referendum is unlikely to be just around the corner, therefore, but this result still shows sizeable Italian disillusionment with the EU. More than 50 per cent of votes in one of the core member states have been cast for Eurosceptic parties; that doesn’t herald Italexit, but it is a rebuke to Brussels nonetheless. We don’t yet know the composition of any resulting government, but a Lega/M5S coalition would not be a bastion of support for the EU grabbing more money and power, nor for ideas like the compulsory allocation of refugees through a new Common Policy, for example. More generally for the Western alliance, Salvini makes no secret whatsoever of his enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin – a worrying prospect for NATO, should he get into government.
4) Where next for the Left?
As in France, Holland, and Germany, the Italian centre-left has taken a serious battering. Renzi himself hasn’t helped that – indeed, he precipitated his party’s crisis by giving his opponents the perfect opportunity to bloody his nose in the referendum – but the problem appears to be wider. Voters didn’t opt for another brand of socialism or social democracy in protest at a leader they disliked, they shifted more drastically and opted for much more rebellious options like M5S, which absolutely loathes the PD. The Italian electoral system works on a confusing mixture of first-past-the-post constituency seats and proportional allocation (and, even more confusingly, the age threshold to vote is different for electing different houses of parliament), so national results matter as well as simply local and regional ones. But all the same, there’s a regional story to the PD’s decline, as the map above (via @EuropeElects) shows. The parties of the right now completely dominate the north of the country, barring some urban centres, while M5S completely dominates the south. The centre left has been squeezed even in the middle of the country, and only just held onto Tuscany, long a solid heartland. The knives will be out for Renzi, but there will also be a wider argument underway about ideology. Corbynite figures in the UK are quick to point out that the British Labour Party saw its vote rise last year, even while its more centrist allies on the Continent plummeted to disaster – their implication is obvious.