I was in Italy the week after the March 4 parliamentary elections. For the first time in my life I was afraid to ask my family and close friends who they voted for. The campaigns, the elections, and their aftermath had been chaotic and divisive: center-left candidates were routed, populist-nationalist candidates were victorious, and yet no majority coalition emerged. In the decade since leaving Italy for the United States, I’ve never felt such a sense of political alienation.
Italy has been in a prolonged state of political upheaval. This year’s elections fell close to the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’s election in 2013. That year too there was no parliament in session and no majority-coalition support for a national government. And in the days immediately following Benedict XVI’s resignation, there wasn’t a pope either. Such a vacuum of power was unprecedented even for Italy, where the papacy is still perceived as a projection of high moral sovereignty: even if there might not be a functioning government, at least there’s someone in charge at the Vatican. But after March 4, there’s less such consolation to be had. Yes, there’s a pope, but filling a political vacuum is outside the scope of this papacy. (More on that below.)
There are several keys to understanding what happened in this year’s elections, most having to do with economics. Italy has never really recovered from the global economic crisis of ten years ago: it is now a poorer country, with per capita GDP down considerably since 2010, and with the number of families and individuals living in poverty up significantly. This has pushed many younger Italians to emigrate. In 2016, almost fifty-thousand people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-four left Italy—up 23.3 percent from the year before. They fled not just from the poorer south, but also from the more prosperous north.
Italy has also fared worse than most European countries since the beginnings of the EU crisis in 2005. It had long depended on the EU for coordination of budgetary guidelines, and suffered correspondingly following implementation of strict austerity measures favored by Germany. There followed between 2015 and 2017 the failure of numerous small and mid-sized banks, with new EU regulations that prohibited bailouts sealing their fates. Local economies have been devastated, including that of Ferrara, my hometown.
Over the past few years Italy has also been treated as something of a frontier on the Mediterranean, abandoned by other European nations and institutions to contend on its own with waves of refugees and migrants fleeing Syria and Africa (the work of Italy’s coast guard, non-governmental organizations, and Catholic charity groups has been nothing short of heroic). The influx is also changing Italy religiously, with newly arriving Muslims and especially Eastern European Orthodox Christians challenging the hegemony of (a weakened) Roman Catholicism.
Against this backdrop unfolded a campaign dominated by vocally populist and nationalist candidates. It was marked by episodes of violence recalling the extremist battles of the 1970s and ’80s. Riot police were called in to break up street clashes between far-right activists of the Forza Nuova party and anti-fascist protestors in Bologna, Venice, Palermo, and elsewhere. In February, a 2017 Northern League candidate for local office targeted African immigrants in a shooting rampage in the city of Macerata, leaving six injured.
When election day came, Italians rejected the most plainly neo-fascist parties, which gained just 1 percent of the vote. But they also turned against the parties that have dominated Italian politics over the past tumultuous decade: the center-right Forza Italia and the center-left Partito Democratico. The defeat of the former signals the likely end of its media-magnate ringmaster, Silvio Berlusconi, who at eighty-one appeared far less energetic in public than in years past. As for the latter, it was not helped by the erratic leadership of forty-three-year-old Matteo Renzi: after he waged war against the old elite of his party and surrounded himself with personally loyal friends (many of them from his native Tuscany), the Partito Democratico lost more than 2.5 million votes from its 2013 total. Given the internal divisions on the left, it’s a real question whether Italy will have a mainstream leftist party anymore.
The winners on March 4 were the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the rebranded League, which dropped the modifier “Northern” in order to appeal to voters in regions it had previously vilified. The M5S, founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, is less a party than a conglomerate of advocacy interests, from accountability in government to anti-vaccination, anti-globalization, and anti-immigration. It posted big wins in the south, running a slate of political amateurs flaunting their anti-establishment status yet clearly eager to serve a well-paid term in the parliament. But it’s worth noting how poorly the movement fared in Rome and Turin, where it already governs. Virginia Raggi, the M5S mayor of Rome elected in 2016, has been a disaster. The capital is buried under uncollected trash, plagued by chaotic public transportation and decaying infrastructure, and mired in debt—problems she had pledged to fix. As the public face of this global city, she has also committed numerous diplomatic gaffes, all while stacking her administration with dilettantes and friends of friends possessing no political or administrative experience. Some of them have been arrested. As for foreign policy, the M5S has not articulated one.
Where the M5S is actually headed isn’t clear. Though the diminished Partito Democratico might see it as a potential coalition partner in steering populism leftward, the M5S is more likely to go with the other winner, the League. Having shed for the moment its regionalist, secessionist garb, the League scored stunning victories deep into the south of Italy, even picking up seats in Sicily, which, as the main landing point for refugees, was receptive to the party’s anti-immigration platform. The League has thus been normalized as a national party. This would have been hard to imagine just a couple of years ago.
M5S projects a vaguely anticlerical message as part of its overall anti-establishment posture. The League, meanwhile, has no love for Pope Francis, but seizes on Catholicism as a marker of Italian identity in railing against Muslim immigrants. (In the past, the League has tried to use remarks from Benedict XVI to justify its anti-Islam rhetoric.) Though the victories of these parties suggest a surge of populism and nationalism, Italy is not like France, Spain, or the United Kingdom in this regard. Italy’s nationalist movements have always been weaker, thanks to its still-brief history as a unified nation and its more “European” self-understanding.
Still, the importance of the results can’t be underestimated. With the parties that dominated the so-called “second Republic” (beginning with the 1994 victory of Berlusconi) vanquished, there is no real political center of gravity in Italy. And in the larger historical context, the election represents a more significant change. The three political strands that made the Italian republic following World War II—socialist-communist, Christian-democratic, and liberal-capitalist free-market—have shrunk to nearly nothing, at least in terms of political representation. In particular, Italians seem either unaware of, or indifferent toward, the disappearance of the Christian-democratic culture. Its last unmistakable specimen is the widely respected and authoritative president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella, elected in 2015 to a seven-year term. But after him it’s hard to see a new generation embodying Catholicism in Italian politics; there is no one who speaks the language or articulates such a worldview. It’s partly a generational shift, but it’s also representative of this particular political moment, in which lack of experience is a virtue, ignorance is an asset, and traditional cultural gatekeepers—the Catholic Church included—have lost their influence.