Italians headed to the polls on Sunday, March 4th to hopefully form what will be the 66th government since 1946, when Italians first voted to oust the monarchy and form the Republic. Italian politics are unique in this sense: these nearly hair-trigger changes in political opinions lead to frequent resignations in Prime Ministers, and thus the formation of new governments. The most recent resignation was of Matteo Renzi in 2016, who stepped down after he failed to convince Italians of constitutional changes in a referendum in December of that year. Sunday’s elections were the regularly scheduled ones held every five years, but the attitude in Italy was fraught. Italians were faced with a choice between three main groups: the center-left Democratic Party, the populist right-wing League (formerly known as the Northern League), and the Five Star Movement, who defies the typical binary political spectrum.
Italian voters more or less rejected all three of these parties, as all have significant detractions. The Democratic Party (PD), which led the country in a center-left coalition since 2013 under three different Prime Ministers, was criticized for its wet noodle leadership under Paolo Gentiloni, who took over after Renzi’s resignation; Gentiloni was widely considered to have failed in adequately addressing the North African migration crisis this past summer. Nor did voters have any faith in the leadership of Matteo Renzi, who, despite his resignation from Prime Minister was still leading the PD. The League, formerly a regionally-interested group for the considerably wealthier and more industrialized northern part of the country, is considered far right wing, and almost populist in its interests of Euroscepticism and anti-immigration. The party flirts with fascism and extremism, has moved even farther towards the right on topics such as immigration, and has discussed coalitions with the Alleanza Nazionale party, a successor to Mussolini’s fascist government. Finally, there comes the Five Star Movement (M5S). M5S stubbornly refuses to align itself with the left or the right, and is spread widely across the political spectrum on many issues: it is anti-corruption and pro-environment, but extremely anti-immigrant and xenophobic, as well as relatively anti-science (it hopes to end mandatory vaccines). Additionally, they are quite against forming coalitions, which will make it difficult for the party should it hope to lead the government.
On Sunday, results showed that none of these three main parties reached the requisite 40% of the popular vote required to form a government - when the unelected President of the Republic will officially name the Prime Minister (from the winning party) and allow Italian politics to move forward. Currently, Italy has no idea who will be its next Prime Minister, and there is much frustration over who will form coalitions with minor parties to form the government.
This is an immensely frustrating result. The Italian political system favors coalition building in order to lead the country, hence the many political parties that exist and represent any number of vastly different fringe interests. At the same time, this means hung parliaments like the one Italy is currently experiencing are all too common, leading to disturbing coalitions being built. The two largest conversations - both unsettling - toward possible coalitions at the moment are between the PD and M5S, and the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Some in the PD, though not Renzi (who also stepped down as party leader after Sunday) hope to form a coalition with M5S. However, this would mean that the PD is giving up its relatively liberal and inclusive principles in order to serve more populist and volatile interests. It would ignore the work Renzi’s and Gentiloni’s governments did - including tough negotiations with both France and Libya in hopes of solving the migration crisis - and instead aligning with an inexperienced and exasperatingly anti-establishment party.
The possible coalition between the League and Forza Italia is more frightening. Though Silvio Berlusconi cannot be Prime Minister again until 2019 (excellently lampooned by John Oliver), his party’s support for the League would amount to two things: a significant amount of power being handed to Berlusconi as his party’s leader, and the appointment (most likely) of Matteo Salvini as Prime Minister. Salvini as Prime Minister should strike fear into the hearts of all EU supporters and supporters of liberal democracy in Europe. Salvini is anti-Euro, anti-EU, anti-immigration, and, interestingly, very pro Russia. Salvini as Prime Minister would certainly lead to discussions of Italy’s departure from the European Union - which, with Italy as a founding member, may begin the death knell of the Union as a whole. Further, it may plant firmly Italy in the hands of Vladimir Putin, which would certainly be a boon for the Russian president in his hopes of dismantling the hegemony of Western Europe.
With Berlusconi putting his support firmly behind Salvini, Italians should be worried. The appointment of Salvini as Prime Minister looks more likely by the day, and center-right (hardly even center anymore) leadership for Italy would certainly lead the country towards doom. Obviously, it is too late to change their votes, but Italians should take a long look at their considerations for whom they vote. Italian voters have been far too short-term in their thinking in the elections. For example, they have not considered the good work that the PD has accomplished, especially in the migration crisis, which is ever more a concern for Italians. To Americans, this frustration reminds us far too much of the political situation at home.
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