On Sunday, March 4, 2018, Italian voters went to the polls to elect members of both houses of the legislature, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate.
A figure familiar to Americans, Stephen K. Bannon, one-time strategist for President Donald Trump, was in Italy during the final days of the campaign. He said in an interview Friday, “The Italian people have gone further, in a shorter period of time, than the British did for Brexit and the Americans did for Trump. Italy is the leader.”
The “Five Star Movement” (M5S) has been much watched in recent days. It is anti-establishment, seeing itself as outside the left-right spectrum. Though its positions on domestic matters often seem taken from a typical social democrat agenda, it is generally anti-immigrant, and its foreign policy is euro-skeptical, even one might say isolationist.
By Monday morning it was clear that both houses would require a coalition: no party won a majority in either. The Democratic Party (the center-left) did terribly. It was expected to lose ground, but the numbers were worse than expected. It was the party most committed to European integration. It took less than 20% of the vote.
M5S did quite well in Sicily and in the south more generally. Its leaders have signaled a willingness to enter into talks with other parties to form a coalition government, and there is some speculation that it may strike a deal with the Northern League. That League, led by Matteo Salvini, was originally devoted to separatism for the Alpine region, but it has become a national power. It calls the euro “the wrong currency and the wrong choice.”
Salvini says that with this vote the electorate has taken “a step forward to be free from the cages and ties that are bringing back hunger and insecurity in Europe.”
A coalition between north and south, between M5S and the League, would certainly suggest radical changes in play in Europe, in a populist direction.
Right Wing View
The right wing of politics in the United States has generally taken a triumphalist view of the results from Italy. Paul Joseph Watson, an Infowars editor-at-large, tweeted that though there is “no clear winner in Italy … the clear loser was the left.”
An admirer of Donald Trump who calls herself PolitiDiva likewise tweets that Italians “just elected a Trumpian ‘Italy first’ candidate! Yuge!” That isn’t a completely accurate way of describing the outcome. Italy did not “elect” Salvini. He may become premier once coalition talks are complete, but that fact isn’t obvious. The results certainly elevated his party to a position of prominence as those talks begin, though. And the parallel between Salvini and Trump is fair.
Breitbart happily declares that the Italian electorate has shaken the European Union to its core.
The conservative blog Red State asks us to call to mind a Renaissance Italian figure, Girolama Savonarola and his “bonfire of the vanities.”
Left Wing View
The left wing of politics in the United States is unhappy about the news from Italy. Yascha Mounk, in Slate, says the election “is a watershed moment in the remarkable rise of populism.” That isn’t meant in a good way. This is the sort of outcome one gets, Mounk says, when “trust in liberal democracy hits rock bottom, mutually hostile anti-system parties proliferate, and ideologically coherent coalitions become impossible. Welcome to 21st century Europe.”
Meanwhile, Hans Noel, at Vox, has a different take. Part of the reason for the failure of the center-left party in Italy, he says, is that as with the Democratic Party in the U.S., “many of its allies view it as too centrist, and some are defecting to minor parties to its left.” The appropriately named Partito Democratico is, one might say, feeling the Bern.
A writer in The Nation, Frederika Randall, highlights the importance of anti-immigrant sentiment to the rise of populist parties in Italy. The Senate recently failed to pass a bill that would have granted citizenship to children born in Italy to non-Italian parents. Randall says that all the M5S Senators left the hall for the vote, depriving it of a quorum, dooming the measure. Although its official documents make the movement out to be “pragmatic and fairly neutral” on migration, she said, this move shows the party’s “true colors.”