Italy’s Voters Issue Warning to Europe

Stephanie Kirchgaessner, The Guardian, March 5, 2018

A majority of Italian voters have supported Eurosceptic candidates in the national election, preliminary results showed, after decades in which Italy has steadfastly championed the European project.

Early results released by the interior ministry on Monday morning, as ballots continued to be counted, pointed to a hung parliament, though there was still a possibility that the centre-right coalition, with about 37% of the vote, could secure a majority once parliamentary seats are allocated.

Either result would represent a repudiation of Brussels by Italian voters, less than two years after the UK narrowly voted to leave the European Union.

Italy’s election poses more questions than it answers

Unlike British voters, Italians would not support an exit from Europe or a referendum on leaving the eurozone, but their backing of populist parties who have previously been open to a referendum on the euro – which would legally be exceedingly difficult to do – was an important barometer of the mood of the country.

The vote on Sunday also appeared to mark the political ascendency of two relatively new political parties that had until recently been considered fringe: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which early results showed had 31% of the vote, and the anti-migrant and Eurosceptic League, formerly known as the Northern League, which performed far better than expected.

While the former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had been seen as leading the centre-right coalition, early results showed he was beaten by his younger rival on the right, Matteo Salvini, following a campaign in which Salvini emphasised support for radical immigration policies, including mass deportations of immigrants who are in Italy illegally.

Salvini, who is known for his bombastic and often racist rhetoric, said on Monday that the performance of his coalition meant that voters had given the right the mandate to lead, and downplayed the suggestion that the coalition would still require a partner to win a majority.

“I am someone who keeps my word, and the commitment is for a centre-right coalition which won and can govern,” Salvini said in a reference to a “gentleman’s agreement” between him and Berlusconi that if the centre-right were to win a majority, whichever party comes out with the most votes within the coalition would name the next prime minister.

He also said that he would not form a coalition with the Five Star Movement and called the euro a currency that was bound to fail, though he ruled out a referendum on it.

The centre-left coalition headed by Matteo Renzi did worse than expected, winning 19% of the vote according to early results.

While Renzi’s leading lieutenant, Maria Elena Boschi, won a safe parliamentary seat in South Tyrol in northern Italy, two other prominent politicians, the interior minister, Marco Minniti, and the culture minister, Dario Franceschini, were defeated.

Francesco Galietti, an analyst in Rome, said: “Renzi has been obliterated in what is perhaps the shortest boom-to-bust cycle of Italy’s political history. Early data suggest the PD won less than 20% of the vote, less than half its share in the EU elections of 2014, and it won’t be long before the non-Renzian forces of the left all go for the jugular.”

The results were extraordinary in part because they reflected a rejection of what most analysts would agree has been a fairly competent government under the PD, which has overseen a big improvement in the economy and adopted policies that limited the number of migrants coming to Europe, in favour of inexperienced political leaders with controversial views on issues ranging from their support of Vladimir Putin to scepticism about the efficacy of mandatory vaccinations.

The M5S’s poor handling of leading jobs in municipal governments in Rome and Turin did not appear to dissuade voters, even as the PD sought to hammer home a message that a vote for the former would bring chaos.

The populist party had until recently endorsed a referendum on the euro, but toned down its anti-euro rhetoric in the run-up to the national election, which may have given Italians, who do not significantly support leaving the eurozone, although they are critical of Brussels, some comfort.

Analysts on Monday morning said it was far from clear, in the event of a hung parliament, how the parties might cobble together a majority. Talks will be led by the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella.

Possibilities include a marriage of convenience between M5S and the PD or M5S and the League.

The results also indicated that Sicily, a longstanding stronghold of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, was definitively in the hands of M5S. Among the winning candidates was the anti-mafia Piera Aiello, who lives under police protection and covered her face during her campaign.

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