Italy’s voters choose populists, deliver stinging rebuke to Europe

M5S leader Luigi Di Maio (R) and party founder Beppe Grillo (L) attend the party's final rally last Friday.

Italy was plunged into political uncertainty Monday after parliamentary elections delivered huge victories for populist, Euroskeptic parties but left no clear path forward for a new government.

No party or coalition received enough votes to rule alone, and Italy now faces a hung parliament, in what European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker described last month as the “worst case scenario” for Europe.

Projections indicate that around 50% of voters opted for populist or right-wing parties. As ballots continued to be tallied on Monday, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) looked set to become the largest single party in parliament with 32% of the vote, although it will not have enough seats for an outright majority.

A right-wing coalition of parties, however, looks set to have the most seats of any bloc in parliament with about 37% of the vote. The big winner in that group was the anti-immigrant and xenophobic League — formerly the Northern League — which garnered more votes than the center-right Forza Italia, its potential coalition partner.

The result will be met with alarm by European leaders who feared that big wins for Italy’s anti-establishment parties would spell further trouble for a continent already struggling to cope with the destabilizing rise of populist and far-right movements in France, Germany and elsewhere.

Key takeaways

  • The right-wing coalition cobbled together by Silvio Berlusconi won the most combined votes at roughly 37%, but the League came out on top of the bloc, winning about 17.5% of the votes to Forza Italia’s 14%. The swing toward the League, led by Matteo Salvini, looks set to give the party as many as 123 seats in the lower house, up from 22 seats, a six-fold increase.
  • Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party fared worse than expected, and the former Prime Minister appears to have failed in his attempt to position himself as the election’s kingmaker.
  • At about 32.5% of the vote, M5S outperformed final opinion polls. The party dominated in the south of Italy, receiving almost one in two votes in a region where youth unemployment is historically high.
  • Italy’s center-left coalition had a bad night, mustering about 23% of the vote. It will likely end up as the third-largest group in parliament behind the right-wing coalition and M5S.
  • Italy looks set to enter a period of political deadlock — facing weeks, if not months, of negotiations between groups with competing interests to form a government.

The League, Five Star, or both?

As the results continued to be counted, the League’s Salvini claimed victory during a press conference in Rome on Monday morning that will have set alarm bills ringing at European Union headquarters in Brussels.

“I have always said, I say now and I will always say that the euro is the wrong currency, and that it was a big mistake getting in it,” Salvini announced. “We have it very clear that the common currency is bound to end. And we want to come prepared to that moment.”

“We look towards the other European forces, that they call populist. I am and I will stay a proudly populist, because the populists listen to the people, unlike the ‘radical chic’ that despise the workers and don’t do their groceries, ” Salvini said.

Though the right-wing bloc did not won enough votes to form a majority government, Salvini claimed “an extraordinary victory.”

“This is the coalition that won, this is the coalition that will govern. The arrogance of [former Prime Minister Matteo] Renzi and his allies has been punished.”

But political scientist Paolo Chiocchetti said M5S would be central to the coming negotiations after it exceeded expectations.

“The big and only winners of the night are the Five Star Movement and the Lega (the League),” Paolo Chiocchetti, fellow of the Robert Schuman Institute of European Affairs at the University of Luxembourg, told CNN.

“Their rise was widely expected given the general anti-incumbency trend in Europe and the particularly harsh effect of the great recession and of austerity in Italy, whose current recovery is extremely feeble. However, they both exceeded the expectations.”

M5S has previously ruled out entering a coalition with any other party, although its leader, Luigi Di Maio, appeared to soften that stance in recent weeks.

Bad day for ruling party

Preliminary results indicate a disappointing showing for the outgoing center-left Democratic Party (PD) which is currently in government.

Although the PD is projected to have won the second most votes at about 19%, its center-left coalition, formed with the liberal More Europe party, could only muster a combined 23% and will likely end up as the third-largest group in parliament behind the right-wing coalition and M5S.

Democratic Party member and outgoing parliamentarian Andrea Marcucci said that the voters had spoken “clearly and incontrovertibly” and that “the populists had won and the (Democratic Party) had lost.”

“The Democratic Party is leaving much better results to Italy than its predecessors. We will start again in the opposition,” he said in the post.

Bad news for EU unity

The poll is being closely scrutinized by European leaders who are concerned by the increasingly euroskeptic sentiment on the continent and fearful of any instability in Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy and one of the founding members of the European Union.

If projections are accurate, the result means that Italy could be plunged into months of further political deadlock that could have broader implications for Europe — both the League and the Five Star Movement are anti-EU parties.

The rise of anti-European voices, both on the right and from the anti-establishment M5S, comes as Italians appear increasingly divided over issues such as undocumented immigration contributed to a rancorous campaign.

Italy is one of the main entry points into Europe from migrants from Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

The narrative around immigration took a darker turn in February after a man linked with the League party apparently went on a shooting rampage targeting African migrants in the town of Macerata. The incident fueled serious political debate about how the country is reconciling its fascist past.

Steve Bannon: ‘Election is crucial’

The populist parties’ gains in the polls were not lost on US President Donald Trump’s former strategic adviser Steve Bannon, who was in Rome to observe the elections.

Bannon said in an interview with Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper that an alliance between the anti-immigrant League party and the populist Five Star Movement was “the ultimate dream.”

“This election is crucial for the global populist movement” he said, adding that it was an issue of “sovereignty” for Italians opposed to immigration.

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted that the projected results signaled an anti-EU sentiment in the southern European country.

“The European Union is going to have a horrible evening,” she said in the post.

Final results are expected to be released at 2 p.m. local time (8 a.m. ET) on Monday.