10 takeaways from Italy’s political earthquake

by Bill Emmott | 05.03.2018

The votes are still being counted in Italy’s general elections, and the negotiations over a new government (if one is possible) will take weeks, but some of the likely causes and consequences of this political earthquake are already clear.

Here are 10 takeaways:

  1.     The two parties that prospered – Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s League (formerly Northern League) – are best summarised as anti-establishment rather than populist. After all, one pillar of the Italian establishment who had a bad night was three-times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was the country’s, and arguably Europe’s, first successful populist, and who spent the electoral campaign strewing around all sorts of populist promises. The newer anti-establishment crew have beaten the old populists.
  2.     The biggest loser was Matteo Renzi, the Democratic Party leader who in 2014 had become Italy’s youngest prime minister since unification a century and a half ago. The man who billed himself as il Rottamatore, the scrappage or demolition man, has himself been sent to the scrapyard. Given that he was elected as a senator in his native Florence he will not disappear. But as his party won a humiliating 19% of the vote, he will be replaced swiftly as leader.
  3.     The anti-establishment vote was driven by two main issues: immigration in the north of Italy and unemployment in the south. Five Star swept the south, a region which has long owned the title “left behind”, having seen no sign of the economic recovery that northerners talk about. The League prospered in the north and centre, where despite such economic growth anxiety about mass immigration from Africa and the Middle East is at its greatest. Both parties blame the domestic establishment for lousy economic performance far more than they blame the EU, so “Italexit” is not on the cards.
  4.     The Eurosceptic element of this election was principally directed at the EU’s failure to pull together a coherent, united strategy to cope with refugees and economic migrants coming across and around the Mediterranean. Brexiters please note: this failure is one of a lack of unity, a lack of central control and decision-making, not a surfeit of it. Italy has too often felt left alone to deal with the roughly 630,000 migrants who have landed on its shores.
  5.     The euro played very little role in this election. All parties barring the Democratic Party made tax and spending promises that would violate the terms of the euro’s fiscal pact. Whoever enters government will have to decide whether it is better to battle that fiscal pact or to battle the bond markets – in a period when the European Central Bank’s quantitative easing is likely to be phased out, making the ECB no longer the buyer of last resort for Italian government bonds.
  6.     Now it will be up to the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, to work out how, if at all, a government can be formed. The electoral law and the constitution leave it up to him to decide whether to give the first chance to the largest single party – Five Star, on 32% of the vote – or the largest declared coalition – the four-party centre-right of the League, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and two smaller groups. That coalition together has 37-38% of the vote, with the League having surged past Forza Italia to 17-18% versus 14%, which makes it more anti-establishment but also more unstable. Most commentators expect Five Star and its prime ministerial candidate, the 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, to be given the first “exploratory mandate”.
  7.     This would leave the incumbent Paolo Gentiloni as caretaker prime minister. Gentiloni, a mild-mannered Democratic Party member who won re-election in Rome, is widely considered a safe pair of hands and inoffensive to other party leaders.
  8.     Most attention will be given to the potential of a parliamentary majority if Five Star were to do a deal with a League that had split away from the centre-right coalition. But while theoretically possible, this is less likely than two other options: Five Star governing with the Democratic Party under a new leader (or having won enough defectors from it); or the centre-right, led now by Salvini, winning enough support from smaller parties or defectors to achieve a majority. With all parties and coalitions being pretty fragile – including Five Star – it is hard to bet on which outcome will prevail.
  9.     The other option – new elections – will be resisted by President Mattarella and the establishment parties, for fear of even worse to come, although the 82-year-old Berlusconi may still have a taste for a new vote in 2019 when his ban from public office dating from his tax-fraud conviction will expire. He will doubtless attribute his poor performance this time to the fact that he could not be prime minister.
  10.     There will now be two major European countries on the EU sidelines: the UK and Italy. Rome, unlike Paris and Berlin, has been sympathetic to the idea that Brussels should cut Theresa May some (albeit not much) slack in the Brexit talks. Pushing this line is scarcely going to be anywhere near its top priority. Cue for Boris Johnson to propose that we toast each other’s marginal status with Prosecco.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon