Tuesday 22 January 2019

Why Russia could gain the most from surge of populism in Italy

An activist wearing a mask of Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi poses during a tour, the day after Italy’s elections, in Rome. Photo: Reuters
An activist wearing a mask of Forza Italia party leader Silvio Berlusconi poses during a tour, the day after Italy’s elections, in Rome. Photo: Reuters

Mary Fitzgerald

Italians are no strangers to high political drama: its modern history has been marked by dizzying changes of government. Since 1980 alone, the lurching from one political crisis to the next has resulted in the post of prime minister being filled more than 20 times.

The results then of last weekend's elections - with parties of the Italian mainstream losing to populist upstarts who will likely struggle to form lasting coalitions - augur yet another period of instability. The new cleavage in Italian politics is less about left versus right and more about pitting the triumphant populists against the established parties. The surge of the anti-establishment currents left the centre-left Democratic Party (down from 25pc to 19pc) and Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (down from 22pc to 14pc) wondering where they will fit in this new political landscape.

Worryingly for those already watching anxiously from Brussels is the fact that more than half of voters plumped for anti-establishment parties of varying hues of Euroscepticism. The Five Star Movement, founded by Genovese comedian Beppe Grillo back when Italy was feeling the ravages of the global financial crisis in 2009, garnered more than 32pc of the vote, making it the largest party by far in the new parliament.

The Five Star Movement shares some similarities with the far-right League (formerly the Northern League) whose Trump-like mantra of 'Italians First' won it 17.4pc of the vote. Both parties call for tax cuts and the shelving of EU budget rules. Both previously demanded that Italy abandons the euro - it is currently the third-largest economy in the eurozone - but Five Star has now reneged on that call, though the League still aspires to it. Speculation that the two populist parties could form a coalition seems to have been dashed by comments from League leader Matteo Salvini - a fortysomething Milanese - that he will not leave his rightist sphere.

Both the Five Star Movement and the League made much of immigration - long a central feature of the latter's platform - on the campaign trail and whatever new government forms, it is likely to take a harder line on the issue.

With Italy the main arrival point for refugees and economic migrants who pay human traffickers to get them across the Mediterranean, anxieties over immigration have coloured its politics for several years. In the last four years, a total of more than 600,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores, though numbers have dropped over the past year.

Nevertheless, the League's Salvini continues to describe the situation as "out of control" and clearly his message chimed with many voters this time round. The Brothers of Italy - another anti-immigration party rooted in the conservative politics that emerged in the post-fascist era - came close to doubling its electoral base to 4.4pc.

While the question of immigration swayed many voters, so too did mounting frustrations over the state of the economy.

While Italy has returned to - albeit slow - growth, its GDP is still well below pre-2008 crash levels. The country remains hobbled by high debt and an unemployment rate of more than 10pc, with young Italians hit particularly hard by the scourge of joblessness.

In this environment, the Five Star Movement - which presented itself as a maverick novelty challenging the status quo of Italy's tired old politics - appealed as something different. A key test now will be how Five Star transforms itself from a party of protest politics to a party of government, depending on what kind of coalition emerges and what role it will play.

With the parties of the right comprising the largest single bloc in parliament, and League leader Salvini vowing it will seek to govern, the next government is likely to be predominantly conservative. The blend of Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and stridently nationalistic currents swirling in the Italian body politic suggests it will be conservatism of a particular type (and feared by Brussels).

Another aspect is Salvini's courting of Moscow. Last year he signed a co-operation agreement with United Russia, the party of Vladimir Putin, whom he speaks of admiringly. He is not the first populist leader in Europe to make overtures to Russia. Nor is he likely to be the last. But what that might translate into for Italy and the EU more generally if Salvini becomes prime minister is another question.

Irish Independent

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