In celebrating his victory on Monday, Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old face of the Five-Star Movement, lauded what he called the start of Italy’s Third Republic, “a republic of citizens.” What that means is anyone’s guess. But he was right that the results mark a new chapter. Italy’s so-named first republic saw dozens of governments led by the Christian Democrats or Socialists, with what was once Europe’s largest Communist party in the opposition. The second republic began in the early 1990s, when two-thirds of Parliament came under indictment in a bribery scandal, known as Tangentopoli (Bribesville), and Silvio Berlusconi stepped into government in 1994.
Since the vote, the mood in certain corners of Italy—among the urban elites, let’s say—feels a lot like London after Brexit, or New York, Washington or San Francisco after Trump’s victory. Educated supporters of the center-right or center-left feel a sense of desperation at a seemingly unstoppable populism, even if the Five-Star Movement seems more problematic at its top than its roots. The web is filled with darkly ironic messages. “Judging from my feed,” a friend of mine wrote on Facebook, “you’d think that Emma Bonino won 70 percent.” Bonino is a former European commissioner whose More Europe list, which was allied with the center-left Democratic Party, won only 2.6 percent of the vote, below the 3 percent threshold needed to enter parliament. But she did particularly well among college graduates, winning 6.5 percent of the vote, compared to 11 percent for the League and a full 29 percent for the Five-Star Movement, according to a chart in Corriere della Sera.
A belief in the European Union did not sell in this election. On the contrary. On Tuesday, Bonino tweeted: “We created More Europe because we’d recognized the anti-European wave. But we hadn’t understood that it was a tsunami. No one among us sees the defeat as shown by our numbers as a defeat of our political program. We’ll continue to work on this project now more than ever.”
Tuesday’s papers were filled with graphics, slicing and dicing the results of the vote. The country was divided in two, between a blue North that voted right wing, and a yellow South, that voted for the Five-Star Movement. There were only a few red patches in the center and north, representing the areas that still went to the center-left, the Democratic Party’s worse performance ever.
The results also showed some of the now-familiar ironies we’ve seen in other populist victory postmortems. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, won handily in rich northern regions whose small- and mid-sized businesses produce exports, even though on the campaign trail he railed against the downsides of globalization. (At a campaign rally in Milan, I spoke to a League mayor from a town outside Verona who told me he worked for a Canadian company in the pharmaceutical industry.) The Five-Star Movement carried the working-class periphery of Rome, but not its wealthier center, even though since the 2015 election of mayor Virginia Raggi of the Five-Star Movement the city has seen an undeniable degradation in basic services—road repair, garbage collection, public transportation. These are problems the mayor may have inherited, but has done nothing to solve. Raggi’s mayoralty represents one of the few times the party has been tested with actually governing, and the results are not promising.