Friday 23 March 2018

Unnerving election adds to political uncertainty that is sweeping across continent

Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Reuters
Silvio Berlusconi. Photo: Reuters

Peter Foster

A decade after the financial crisis Europe is still struggling to govern itself, and yesterday's Italian election results only confirm that trend.

Pre-vote polls show no single party, or group of parties, able to secure a majority.

Instead we can expect weeks, or even months, of horse-trading where none of the range of possible outcomes points to the kind of stable and reforming government that Italy so desperately needs.

Despite some recent progress with the balance sheets of its banks, Italy remains drowned in public debt at 130pc of GDP, and crippled with slow headline GDP growth, poor productivity and endemic youth unemployment.

These are the underlying factors that explain the Italian public's disenchantment with both the EU and their own political class, and the upsurge of populist movements like Five Star and the stridently anti-immigrant League (formerly the Northern League).

The standard, complacent response is that the Italian public, having endured 65 governments since 1945, and a host of recently appointed prime ministers, is well used to "everything changing, so that everything can stay the same".

But the rise of Five Star - an internet-based party started by a stand-up comedian that is now comfortably Italy's largest - and the resurgence of an anti-immigrant right, headed by that ageing lothario Silvio Berlusconi, says otherwise.

Consider that some 60pc of Italians are set to vote for anti-establishment parties.

Italians are angry, and if the polls are correct, they will show it by handing Matteo Renzi's centrist Democratic Party (PD) a drubbing, mirroring electorates across Europe that are now rejecting the brand of Blairite centerism that seemed impregnable until a decade ago.


If Five Star performs above expectations and takes 30pc of the vote, it could find itself a full 10pc ahead of Mr Renzi, and perhaps double the vote share of Mr Berlusconi's Forza Italia - and yet be locked out of government by its own refusal to build coalitions.

The prospect of an unholy alliance between Five Star and Matteo Salvini's League Party rightly fills the markets with dread, but another left-right establishment stitch-up that keeps the same old establishment in place may not be much better.

That will only stoke the anger of the disillusioned 80pc of Italians who feel, not unreasonably, that their vote counts for nothing.

Not too long ago, Italy's political morass could be treated as unique, but not any more. From north to south, from Spain to the Netherlands, Europe is now littered with minority governments and weak coalitions.

Even mighty Germany, where it took six months to forge a coalition, is not immune to these new centrifugal forces.

Where there is a concentration of power in the east - in Poland and Hungary - the drift is now back towards autocracy, not democracy.

It is ultimately this back-drop of deep uncertainty that plagues the search for a win-win Brexit deal - itself further complicated by weak minority governments on both sides of the Irish Sea - and drives Brussels, Paris and Berlin into their destructive defensive crouch.

Italy's unnerving election will not help matters.

© Daily Telegraph, London

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