The latest Italian general election held on March 4 has reflected the populist surge that has been sweeping across Europe. Italian voters backed anti-immigrant, anti-establishment parties and have now created a complex scenario in the country. They have also indicated an increase in support for anti-European parties.
No single party however appears to have received enough votes to rule alone. This means that the country is likely to enter a period of political deadlock. We have seen such a situation affecting Germany for quite a few months.
Katya Adler of the BBC has drawn attention to Italian voters punishing the centre-left government as the centre-left has been punished in so many other European countries.
The important aspect was the significant gain achieved by anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) Party led by 31-year-old Luigi di Maio. They received 31% of the vote. However, according to state broadcaster RAI, that has not been enough in terms of seats to form a government. Of its coalition partners, the anti-immigrant League attracted the largest share of the votes with 18% to Forza Italia’s 14%. The swing toward the League looks set to give the party as many as 123 seats in the lower house, up from 22 seats, a six-fold increase.
The M5S party has been described as anti-establishment, Eurosceptic, and pro-environment. Till recently (before the elections), the M5S had ruled out the potential of creating a coalition, but the vote results might persuade it to soften its stance. Although M5S has consistently advocated leaving the EU and the Euro, its leader has recently said that it preferred to stay in the bloc for the time being.
It may be noted that that the center-right coalition, which includes the Northern League led by 44-year-old Matteo Salvini -- a great admirer of President Donald Trump -- along with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy, is likely to form the largest bloc in both houses of the country’s parliament, with a combined share of votes totaling over 37%.
Such a scenario means that, as no party secured a majority, the country faces weeks, if not months, of negotiations between groups with competing interests to form a government.
The new government will have to deal with the country’s debt profile carefully as the debt-to-GDP ratio is still very high
A battle of directions
The centre-left Democratic Party was the undisputed loser in Sunday’s polling. The party appeared to have gained only around 19% of the overall vote, and its centre-left coalition around 23% in total. This bombshell sees the largest loss of the election, which will see it shed seats, from 281 to somewhere between 104 and 110.
European political analysts have justifiably expressed their apprehension about EU unity. The poll is being closely scrutinized by European leaders who are concerned by the increasingly Eurosceptic sentiment and fearful of any instability in the Eurozone’s third largest economy.
The election result means that Italy could be plunged into months of further political deadlock that could have broader implications for Europe -- as both the League and the Five Star Movement are anti-EU parties. It is also clear that both within the right and the anti-establishment M5S, the Italians appear to be increasingly divided over issues such as undocumented immigration. That has definitely contributed to a worrying outcome after a rancorous campaign.
It must not be forgotten that Italy has been one of the main entry points into Europe for migrants from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The narrative around immigration took a darker turn in February after a man linked with the League apparently went on a shooting rampage targeting African migrants in the town of Macerata.
The centre right (on migration) feels that there should be deportation of illegal migrants, that there should be revision of treaties on Europe, refusal of overregulation, and no more austerity policies.
They also think that there should be facilitation of credit lines for small and medium-sized enterprises. The Democratic Party (on migration) believes that aid should be stopped for countries refusing to share the burden of refugees.
On Europe, it believes in more political and social integration. It also wants to reduce unemployment to lower than 9% and equal pay for women. The Five Star Movement (on migration) wants revision of the Dublin Regulation and distribution of asylum seekers across Europe.
They also want to find alternatives to the Euro. With regards to the economy, they want free trade union representation, worker participation in decision-making, shorter working hours, and incentivizing part-time work.
When numbers talk
Financial analysts, while acknowledging that the issues of migration and refugees have played an important roles in the electoral paradigm, have also pointed out that there are several other important issues that will need to be addressed by the Eurozone’s third largest economy.
Italy’s economy has started to expand once again but, nearly 10 years on from the Global Financial Crisis, Italy’s GDP remains 5.7% lower than pre-crisis levels. In 2016, some 18 million people were at risk of poverty, and unemployment rate currently is at 11%.
The new government will have to deal with the country’s debt profile carefully as the debt-to-GDP ratio is still very high. While it has been positive, it’s been slow over the last three, four years. One should hesitate about seeing any form of debt reduction strategy coming out of this election, purely because if the government of the day goes for it, then the voters might turn around and say “hey, that’s not what we voted for -- it wasn’t in any of your campaign pledges.”
One can only assert that these significant economic needs will require unity for solution and that does not seem imminent under the current conditions where Italy is likely to have political deadlock and a hung parliament.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information, and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]