Desire for change fueled Italy's anti-establishment vote

Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, during a campaign event ahead of the election that saw his party win a third of the popular vote..
Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, during a campaign event ahead of the election that saw his party win a third of the popular vote.. Reuters/Ciro De Luca

Italian politics remained up in the air on Tuesday as results from weekend elections confirmed a hung parliament, with traditional parties ceding the way to anti-establishment movements. Regional differences and anti-EU feeling marked voting behaviour, but the main driver was a wish for a new political culture.


Forza Italia, The centre-right party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, saw its share of the overall vote fall to 14 percent, while its coalition partner La Lega, an anti-immigration party formerly known as the Northern League, grew to 18 percent.

Support for the centre-left Democratic Party fell to just under 19 percent, prompting its leader Matteo Renzi, another former prime minister, to announce his resignation on Tuesday.

The biggest winner was the Five Star Movement, an anti-establishment party that made big gains in the south and took a third of the overall vote.

“Millions of Italians want to see a new political class in power, and they like Five Star’s themes: anti-corruption, a neither-left-nor-right image, something different,” says Roberto D’Altimonte, professor of Italian politics of Luiss University in Rome.

Europhile to eurosceptic?

It was the first time that a majority of Italian voters have cast ballots for political parties that are sceptical, or at least overly unenthusiastic, about the European Union.

That is no small development for the EU’s historically europhile third largest economy, even if D’Altimonte cautions against deriving too many conclusions from that fact alone.

“Neither La Lega nor the Five Star have used the euro or euroscepticism as a campaign issue,” he says. “The main issues were others. So you have to be careful about saying eurosceptic, particularly with regards to the Five Star.”

But Italy’s economy has stagnated over the past two decades, which may have been the background to the voting behaviour.

“I think the Italian electorate is perceiving most notably the euro as one of the sources of this lack of growth,” says Fabio Bulfone of the Robert Schumann Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute in Florence (EUI).

“If we take a longer-term perspective, there were weaknesses in the Italian economy even before the adoption of the euro, but still it’s very easy for eurosceptic parties to portray the euro and the European Union as a source of problems for the electorate.”

North-South divide

One of the most commented outcomes of the election is the difference between the north, where La Lega saw the greatest concentration of support, and the south, which turned in favour of the Five Star Movement.

The correlation appears to be better results for the Five Star Movement in areas of economic difficulty and better results for La Lega where there is a feeling of insecurity over immigration.

“If we look at the provinces where the rate of unemployment is the highest, we see that the Five Star Movement got a majority of votes,” says Lorenzo Piccoli, a research at the EUI and with the Swiss National Centre of Research on the Move.

“If you look at the provinces where the rate of immigration has been higher over the last few months, these are the provinces where La Lega got a large majority of votes.”

But the Five Star Movement’s results in the north are not negligible either, which points again to a nationwide desire for a change in the political landscape.

“Whereas the more economic side of the Five Star Movement vote is more strongly geographically located in the south,” says Fabio Bulfone, “the idea of lack of legitimacy of the political class in general gathers together Five Star Movement voters from all around the country.”

The difficult question of coalition deals

Whether Italian voters will see their wish for change crystallise in a truly novel coalition government remains to be seen, as no power-sharing arrangement appears immediately evident.

La Lega has ruled out striking a deal with the Five Star Movement, and Renzi’s resignation from the Democratic Party has opened the possibility that the centre-left party will be open to talks, but much rests with the path that the Five Star Movement decides to take.

“If they decide that they want to govern Italy – which is a big if, because until now they have discussed governing alone, as a minority government, and this will not fly – I think they should be given a chance,” says Roberto D’Altimonte, adding this chance can only come “under certain conditions.

“One of the conditions is they have to find allies. As for which allies, this is a very difficult question.”

The new parliament is to meet for the first time on 23 March.

If no coalition deal comes between now in then, it could mean the country will organise another election.


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