Two Ways to Read Italy's Election Results

The people have spoken. But what are they saying?

An activist wearing a mask of Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi poses, the day after Italy's parliamentary elections, in Rome, on March 5, 2018.  (Max Rossi / Reuters)

ROME—Anyone who’s spent more than a vacation in Italy knows it’s a country with deep reserves of discontent, economic stagnation, and political dysfunction. So the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, which promises universal basic income and says it wants to clean up politics, and the right-wing League party, which made immigration and economic anxiety central issues, had plenty of anger to tap into ahead of Sunday’s national elections. And then they became the biggest winners, with more than half of the electorate between them.

Meanwhile, the center-left Democratic Party, which has governed Italy respectably well since 2013, had the worst showing in the party’s history, with around 18 percent of the vote. This came on the watch of Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, who has gone from rising star to one of the most polarizing and despised politicians in the country.

The people have spoken. But what are they saying? There are two main ways to read the results, and both have major consequences for Europe. One—and this is entirely new—is that one of the three pillar countries of the European Union now effectively has a euroskeptical majority in parliament; both Five Star and the League have called for rewriting treaties with Europe to give Italy more sovereignty. (Although it’s a big question whether they would team up to form a government; the election results have produced a hung parliament.) The second is that voters are punishing Italy’s governing elites—Renzi’s Democratic Party, but also Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party—for overseeing the country’s decline.

The results of the vote fundamentally alter Italy’s relationship to the European Union. Five Star and the League haven’t called for an Ital-exit per se, but a loosening of ties that they say have held Italy back. How they’ll accomplish this is anyone’s guess. In a victory speech on Monday, Matteo Salvini, the head of the League—which he transformed from a Northern sovereignist party into a national one by campaigning on a platform of “Italians first”—said he wanted a “different” kind of Europe, one that gives more power to national interests over pan-European commitments. He praised Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who is famous for his authoritarian bent and for advocating what he has called “illiberal” democracy, and who has pushed back against taking in refugees from the Middle East. Salvini also thanked France’s Marine Le Pen for her support and friendship. But he shares some of Le Pen’s contradictions—like her, he is a euroskeptic who has served in the European Parliament; like her, he has said the European Union is a suffocating oppressor, while wanting lots of European Union agricultural subsidies for the farmers that form a key constituency. He’s walked back the idea for a referendum on the euro, now saying that the single currency was a bad idea but it would cost too much to get out of it.

But if Five Star becomes a governing party, which they will certainly do, having won the largest vote share with 33 percent, what does that mean for Europe? Lucia Annunziata, the editor of the Huffington Post Italia and a longtime television interview host, told me she didn’t think Europe should be too worried. “I think they will do a lot of wheeling and dealing and hammering the table,” she said. “But certainly they’re not ready to put Ital-exit on the table.”

What the results mean for Italy is an even murkier question. The country is a complicated series of interlocking interests and networks of power that transcend notions of a national interest—further disaggregated by the polarizing effects of the internet, which helped both the League and Five Star connect to voters. No party used it better than the Five-Star Movement, which started in 2009 as a net-roots movement founded by Beppe Grillo, a former comic whose blog became a repository for transversal discontent with the status quo and politics as usual. Grillo has since taken a step back, ceding the party’s leadership to Luigi Di Maio, an inscrutable 31-year-old MP. On Monday he said his party was the dominant political force in Italy, but was “post-ideological,” and looking for coalition partners on issues, not ideology.

Coalition talks are expected to take weeks, as no one bloc won the 40 percent needed to form a government. Renzi said his Democratic Party would enter the opposition and that he’d step down, but only after a government was formed, and would not allow the Democratic Party to form alliances “with extremists,” a reference to the Five-Star Movement.

But the party's supporters don't come across as extremists. They're people who are fed up with the mainstream parties and feel left out. Last Friday, at the last campaign rally of the Five-Star Movement, held in Piazza del Popolo here, I was struck by the range of the party's supporters. Maria Moccia, an English teacher in a public school outside Rome, told me she used to vote Communist then center-left, but had grown “tired of the same faces and the same parties and the broken promises.” Concetto Cansonella, a civil servant, told me he liked the Five-Star Movement because he thought they had “a free hand,” and were “citizens like us.” Across the piazza I met Andrea Liri, a retired FIAT worker from the Lazio region outside Rome who told me he used to support the far-right Movimento Sociale Italiano, but stopped voting entirely after that party transformed itself into the National Alliance and allied with Berlusconi. Now Liri was a Five-Star voter. Nearby, a group held up a banner that read “Don't Worry, Mom, I'm with the Honest.” The party has campaigned on a platform of “legality, honesty, and a fight against corruption,” as Alessandro di Battista, one of the party's more energized leaders, said on stage at the rally. (As part of its growing pains, it has also kicked out some MPs for ethical violations.)

But it’s hard to get a read on the party’s leadership, and its chameleonic positions, which keep shifting. Di Maio comes from a right-wing family outside Naples, an area that has always leaned rightward, that supported the Christian Democrats in the jobs-for-votes post-war era, then switched to Berlusconi, and now likes the idea of universal basic income since the jobs-for-votes era ended when the state’s money ran out. Five Star’s platform says they want to pull out of NATO, but in a television interview a few days ago, Di Maio said the party wanted to stick to its NATO commitments. Di Maio has stayed silent on some issues, like immigration. And he’s used ambiguity to his advantage—an old trick of the Christian Democrats, who managed to hold contradictory positions at the same time. Still, serious people find the Five-Star Movement worrisome. “It’s as if they think their ignorance is a kind of innocence,” said Ezio Mauro, a columnist and former editor of La Repubblica, a center-left daily, told me.

If the party’s victory seems fitting in the era of Brexit and Trump, the Five-Star Movement was actually ahead of the curve in some ways. It won 25 percent of the vote in the 2013 elections—before Brexit, before Trump—and Renzi’s government slowed down the populist wave. Until it didn’t. Four years ago, Renzi took over the Democratic Party in a party coup. He arrived as “a populist who wanted to fight the establishment,” Christian Rocca, an Italian journalist, commentator, and Renzi supporter, told me. But once in power, he was targeted by “populist movements, that’s his problem,” Rocca said. “The more he governed well, the more things he did, the less it was valued. As with Obama or Hillary, the point isn’t what you did or didn’t accomplish, it’s whether people are for you or against you.”

In this, the results resemble less Brexit and Trump than the rise of the left-wing Syriza party in Greece, which came to power when the centrist parties were seen as corrupt and complicit in bankrupting the country. Nor did Renzi do himself any favors. In Italy, Di Maio is mocked for making grammar mistakes, especially with the subjunctive mood, used for hypotheticals. Renzi seems to have the opposite problem. He uses the subjunctive too much. In his speech Monday, when he said he’d eventually step down, he barely conceded any errors and instead talked about how Italy should have held elections last year, riding the currents that helped defeat Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and elect Emmanuel Macron in France.

The Democratic Party is not unlike the French Socialists, but Renzi is not Macron, who founded his own movement to capture popular sentiment that the Socialist Party structure had been unable to harness. Renzi stayed at the helm of the Democratic Party—even after he lost a referendum in 2016 that was about constitutional reform but became a vote on his leadership—and alienated many of its core constituents. Even his supporters see his character flaws—his arrogance, his top-down leadership, his surrounding himself with Tuscan yes-men—as fatally weakening the only party that could offer serious leadership and a pro-European Union agenda.

“Renzi puts himself at the center of the political stage—not the party, and not the reforms, especially the economic reforms, and as a consequence he lost credibility,” Maurizio Molinari, the editor in chief of the Turin daily La Stampa, told me.

The pattern of the centrist parties seeming disconnected from voters is happening across the European Union, and the Italian results will only weaken the bloc. But Italy is complicated, and the election results raise more questions than they answer. Did Renzi fall because he tried to change a country that didn’t ultimately want to change? Was the Five-Star Movement promising change, but ultimately offering status quo, or nothing at all? Salvini and the League had brought anti-immigrant rhetoric into mainstream Italian politics. How far will that go in a big-hearted country, one where Catholic charities tend to the needy, including immigrants?

This morning I went for a walk around the Colosseum. Tourists milled around and also private tour operators with vests that read “Skip the Line.” This is a country where it’s assumed that the state doesn’t function very well, and people make their own arrangements. Will the European Union go the same way?