The Italian Implosion

Italy’s old guard is finished. But it’s not clear yet what the new guard is.

5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio speaks to supporters in front of the Montecitorio government palace in Rome, Italy, on October 12, 2017. (Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters)

ROME—In Italy’s national elections on Sunday, Marco Minniti, Italy’s interior minister, a long-time spy chief and a member of the center-left Democratic Party, was soundly defeated in his parliamentary race by a candidate without a party. The winner was a man who had been kicked out of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement because he admitted he’d broken a party rule and not tithed part of his salary back to the movement. The majority of the other ministers in the current government, a grand coalition of center-left and center-right led by the Democratic Party, also lost in direct contests, although they’ll enter parliament through a proportional system.

The dust is settling on one of the most dramatic political shifts in Italy since the founding of the republic after the Second World War. In this case a populist wave split the country in two. The entire Italian south and Sicily went to the chameleonic Five-Star Movement, which became the first party in Italy, with 33 percent of the vote. Most of the North went to a center-right bloc led by the League, formerly the Northern League, which campaigned on fears of out-of-control immigration and economic distress. That party is now the senior partner in the bloc with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, which I wrote about here. (The results produced a hung parliament, with no party getting enough votes to form a government on its own, and it will take weeks if not months for a government to emerge.)

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.

The Rome vote can partly be explained by the fact that the Five-Star Movement has been popular among Italian civil servants. In this it resembles the Syriza party in Greece, which came in promising radical change and wound up absorbing former Socialist voters, including state workers. But there’s the not-small matter that both Five-Star and the League are offering economic proposals that could bankrupt the country, as the columnist Ferdinando Giugliano wrote. The Five-Star Movement wants a universal basic income, while the League and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia are promoting a flat tax, lowering the retirement age and raising pensions.

Commentators have remarked that Vladimir Putin must be pleased with the Italian election results, since both the League and Five-Star are philo-Russian, which might have an impact on Italian foreign policy on Russian sanctions. Many businesses based in the Italian North do business with Russia. Salvini posted a picture of himself in his office, where his bookshelf has a picture of Putin and a “Make America Great Again” hat, along with photos of AC Milan, his soccer team, which Berlusconi owned for years but recently sold to Chinese investors. There have been reports about the Five-Star Movement’s fondness for Russia, and about Russian bots circulating on the Italian web ahead of the election.

While these parties have the wind in their sails, since the election the center-left Democratic Party has been embroiled in even more infighting than it saw during the campaign. Some party members are up in arms that its leader, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, said he won’t step down until after a government is formed and has forbidden the party from forming alliances with the Five-Star Movement. Some members think such alliances could have a moderating or shaping force on Five Star—or could at least get the Democratic Party into government. Renzi has said they will be in the opposition of whatever government emerges.

I’m concerned about these election results. The implosion of the left is a pan-European phenomenon. But it takes on a particular cast in Italy. The Five-Star Movement may draw on a transversal base, but it might wind up having a right-wing leadership. It’s hard to tell. From Fascism to Tangentopoli, almost all dramatic political changes here have shifted the country rightward.

Italy has a long tradition of strong men. Mussolini. Andreotti, the seven-time Christian Democratic prime minister. Berlusconi. Now it will be governed by weak men who’ve won over the strongman electorate.