5 March 2018

A political earthquake shook Italy and Europe last night, redrawing the Italian political landscape to an extent that hardly anyone had expected. The results of yesterday’s elections confirm trends that had already emerged during the campaign, but with proportions largely unforeseen. Even if the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) was predicted to perform strongly, its result – over the 30 percent of the vote in both chambers – comes as a surprise. And while the Left and centre-left were expected to perform poorly, their defeat assumes the contours of a debacle.

The fallout from the vote leaves Italy in a situation of great uncertainty. But two conclusions are apparent at this stage:

First, it is clear that there is no easy majority in Italy. The right-wing coalition – surprisingly led by the anti-immigration Lega over Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the nationalist Brothers of Italy, and the centrist Noi con l’Italia – has secured the largest share of seats, but not enough to easily form a government. In the absence of a clear majority, the Italian President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, will now take on the crucial role of deciding who should try to put together an executive.

And this leads us to the second conclusion that can be drawn from the vote. Although the right wing coalition has gained the largest number of seats overall, it is the M5S that can first and foremost claim victory, surpassing the second biggest party in Italy, the Democratic party, by more than 10 percentage points. And this, combined with the result of the Lega, now the third largest party in Italy, stands to confirm that anti-establishment forces are all but weakened in Europe, as elections in Germany and Austria, just to name a few, had already hinted.

With anti-establishment forces emerging victorious, the loser is instead the establishment, from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia – yes, it is part of the coalition that obtained the greatest share of votes, but relegated to the role of junior partner – to the Democratic Party, which is facing a crisis the left has encountered in many other European countries too, including France and Germany.

In fact, the PD, and the coalition to its left, Liberi e Uguali, are arguably the biggest losers of this electoral round. And yet, ironically, they might end up deciding Italy’s future. Here’s why.

With no clear majority emerging from the election results, the M5S will now probably be pivotal in the next parliament. Despite declarations from exponents of both Lega and Forza Italia that the right-wing coalition should take on the task of trying to form a government, it is unclear how they could convince other parties to back Lega’s leader Matteo Salvini, who in light of the Lega’s outperformance of Forza Italia, is now be the prime ministerial candidate of the right-wing coalition. Salvini’s positions on issues such as Europe and the economy rest uneasily with centrist voters – for instance, he did not lose time to attack the EU commenting after the vote, calling the Euro “a wrong currency and a wrong decision.” The hypothesis cannot certainly be ruled out, but the M5S might have a greater chance of securing the necessary support.

I had already pointed out before the vote that, in a situation of political realignment, the M5S would prove a strong bellwether of where Italy was heading more broadly. And this seems to be confirmed. The Movement has been characterised since its inception by a great degree of ambiguity on its political positions, including on Europe. Born as an essentially new left force, it has significantly evolved over time and its electorate now cuts across the political spectrum.

Since a large part of its electorate shares similar characteristics with that of the Lega, including its Eurosceptic positions, suggestions have circulated early on in the electoral campaign that M5S and Lega could strike an alliance. The implications for Europe of such a deal would be significant. While the Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio praised Macron’s emphasis on the need for a European reform, it is doubtful whether the preferred content of such a reform would be in line with that of the French President – the Five Star are strongly opposed to austerity measures and sustain an alliance of Southern European countries in order to fight it.

It is however unclear whether it is in the political interest of either party to reach such an agreement. The Lega has now the opportunity to take control of the right and would probably burn such a chance by supporting a Five Star government. The M5S in turn risks significant internal divisions if it chooses to pursue an alliance with the Lega, as its so-called orthodox faction would hardly accept the alliance; Roberto Fico, one of the leaders of the faction said in the past he would never consider joining forces with the Lega.

Although it has not been openly stated, the Movement would likely prefer a coalition with left-wing forces. Such a government would be met with considerably less scepticism in Europe and, although critical of many EU policies, would hardly represent a systemic threat. However, the left and the centre-left are already in a position of great difficulty after the vote and the burden of government at this stage could finish them off. Matteo Renzi, the leader of the Democratic Party, today stepped down as party Secretary but ruled out the possibility of supporting a Five Star government. Nonetheless, a minority of the PD has previously opened up to the possibility of supporting the Five Stars, as has the left-wing coalition Liberi e Uguali.

In short, left-wing MPs could now be faced in Italy with a similar question to that which the SPD had to face recently in Germany. Support for a Five Star government could be electorally damaging – and, contrary to the situation in Germany, the Five Stars are likely to concede less to their junior coalition partners than the CDU has done. However, if they were to decide to move to the opposition, they could indirectly open the way to a M5S-Lega alliance. This could lead to a showdown within the Democratic Party before the elections of the presidents of the two chambers of the Italian parliament on 23 March, which will give some indication on how a possible majority could be formed.

Of course, the possibility also remains that no governing coalition can be formed, leading to a potential rerun. But this is something that will become clearer over time.