The tumultuous waters of the Mediterranean have, for several millennia, played host to wave after wave of surprises for Rome. While some bought muslin and spices, others were invaders threatening the dominance of one of the world’s mightiest empire. In 2015, Rome once again shook the world as images of dead bodies floating on Italian beaches began circulating across media platforms. This was followed by what would become largest inflow of migrants in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
The European Migrant Crisis could not have begun at a worse time for continent that once defined the destiny of our world. Its three largest economies- Germany, Britain and France were desperately attempting to stabilize their economies at a time of global economic uncertainty and an EU Debt Crisis that was threating bankruptcy in Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain with disastrous consequences for banks and the Eurozone. In addition, tepid economic growth across the continent, coupled with increasing competition from emerging economies led to high levels of unemployment and distress, especially among the youth. A large unemployed population, reduced tax revenues, massive government debt, an influx of immigrants threatening social safety nets and a territorially aggressive Russia was the ideal mix for the rise of ‘anti-establishment’ political groups. Over the next few years, ‘populism’ (on both left and right) would sweep Europe.
First, the radical left wing Alexis Tsipras led his Syriza party to power in Greece on a plank of getting a better debt deal. He was followed by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who having been in the position since 2010 showed increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Next, Britain saw the rise of radical left wing leader Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party and then in 2016, it voted to leave the EU in a stunning result after a campaign that was riddled with anti-immigrant and xenophobic narrative. The ripples were strong enough to be felt across the Big Pond as Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in a surprising upset and marched on 1600, Pennsylvania Avenue to become the most powerful man on the planet after a campaign filled with rhetoric against almost every conceivable oppressed community. France, Netherlands and Germany narrowly avoided far-right governments, giving a brief respite to proponents of liberal democracy, as the young liberal Emmanuel Macron (France), and the centre-right Mark Rutte (Netherlands) and Angela Merkel (Germany) won elections. These victories were arguably Pyrrhic as they were accompanied by a dramatic and threatening rise in the power of far-right and neo-fascist groups such as the AfD (Germany), National Front (France) and the Party for Freedom (Netherlands). As 2017 progressed, Austria fell too, with the centre-right Prime Minister Sebastian Kruz being forced into a coalition with far-right groups and the rise of parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece created more problems. And now, as March 4, 2018 dawns, we are looking at Italy.
The 2018 General election will herald the 66th government in the 72 years that Italy has been a republic. During this time, Italy has seen 42 Prime Ministers. This level of political instability has, quite naturally, prevented the creation of a long term plan for dealing with economic, political or social issues. It has also hampered the creation of a stable plan for pulling the country out of its current economic problems and reduced its capacity to engage in any meaningful capacity building for the future, at a time when the global balance of power is rapidly shifting in favour of emerging markets and economies world over are adapting to changes in production methods owing to technological developments.
This instability stems partly from Italy’s Constitutional Scheme itself. At the national level, voters elect two houses of Parliament- The Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and The Senate of the Republic (Upper House). The Chamber consists of 630 Deputies elected, for the first time this year, on a hybrid system wherein some seats are allocated to First Past the Post (FPTP) system, while others are elected on proportional representation. The 315 elected members of the Senate (there are 5 senators for life as well) are chosen through a proportional representation system. Both houses serve concurrent terms of 5 years and a government must command a majority in both houses to retain power. This is different from the usual scheme in a parliamentary democracies where the upper house, such as the House of Lords in the UK, does not play a role in government formation and has a limited role in legislative business as well.
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni.
The previous Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi of the Centre Left Democratic Party, attempted a radical overhaul of the constitutional scheme, attempting to align it to the Westminster System as far as powers of the two houses of Parliament was concerned. However, many argued that his system of allocating seats in the Senate favoured certain regions over others and he lost a constitutionally mandatory referendum, and had to resign, in December 2016, which is when his Foreign Minister- Paolo Gentiloni- took over as Prime Minister of a caretaker government. Gentiloni has since been running Italy’s caretaker government which will be replaced in the upcoming elections.
Why is this election significant?
The election can prove to be extremely dangerous for Europe. At a time when the EU has been weakened because of BREXIT, and the future of the trans-Atlantic Alliance seems uncertain because of the political contradictions in America, the rise of an anti-immigrant, protectionist coalition in one of EU’s most important economies could be disastrous for future integration. It could impede any progress on the ‘Ever Closer Union’ and Franco-German plans of proceeding with a truly federal EU after BREXIT. Worse still, if a 2015 like Debt crisis were to become likely again, either because of a capital flight owing to a Fed Interest rate hike or otherwise, Italy might even consider exiting the EU.
So who are the contenders in this election?
While Italy’s complex multi-party system means that there are about two dozen parties in the mix, the election has been dominated by some smaller parties, with the major parties- the centre-left Democratic Party (led by Matteo Renzi), and the centre-right Forza Italia (led by Silvio Berlusconi)- trying to seize the initiative, but in vain.
Five Star Movement
The Five Star Movement (M5S) has become the black horse of this election. Polls predict the party to have the greatest support individually. It has ruled out a pre-poll alliance with any other party. The party was started by Italian comedian Beppe Grillo, who is now a grandfather like figure in the party. He has opted out of fighting the election himself but continues to vigorously campaign and is seen as the most attractive face of the party. Grillo made a name for himself during the referendum on the constitutional reforms of Prime Minister Renzi in 2016. He surrounded himself with a group- “Friends of Beppe Grillo”- which over time merged into the M5S. Today, the group’s founder- Luigi Di Maio- is the leader of the M5S, and its Prime Ministerial Candidate.
Beppe Grillo; Source: Alchetron.
Leaders of the Five Star Movement at a flash mob (Center: Luigi Di Maio). Source: Andreas Solaro/AFP.
Di Maio is a 31 year old politician who, unlike Grillo displays the suave of a politician. A student activist who could never complete his law degree because of his political activities, many believed Di Maio would take the edge off of Grillo’s unkempt political style filled with rants against immigrants and Europe. In a way he did, since his arrival, there has been a noticeable distance between Grillo and the party he himself founded, the former even separated his own blog from the party blog. However, this hasn’t morphed into any substantial tensions between the two. Grillo continues to campaign for the party and has been seen with Di Maio publicly as well.
Left: Beppe Grillo, Right: Luigi Di Maio; Source: Andreas Solaro/ AFP.
M5S has been able to maintain an elusive ambiguity on most key policies. This has been true despite the fact that the party has held elected office in Rome and controls some seats in the Parliament. Under Grillo, the party favoured a referendum on the EU Membership, but recently Di Maio softened the stance and ruled out a referendum. On other issues, the party has skirted specific ideas but has promised stringent repatriation of tens of thousands of migrants. Overall, the party’s anti-establishment narrative is aptly summed up by its long standing slogan that translates to “*explitive*-off to Politicians”.
Lega Nord (La Lega or Northern League)
The next in Italy’s populist parties is the Lega Nord or La Lega or the Northern League Party. Led by Matteo Salvini, a 44 year old student activist who has been able to use social media to galvanize support for his party. The Lega Nord was a party born out of the Padanian Separatist Movement in Northern Italy which was at its peak in the late 1990s. The party suffered a massive setback after internal divisions emerged on the question of an alliance with Silvio Berlusconi in 1999. Since then, it has chosen to focus on devolution and entered an alliance with the Centre-Right Coalition led by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Matteo Salvini; Source: Alberto Pizzoli, AFP/Getty Images.
In this election however, Salvini has been able to gather a massive support base by leveraging the fears stoked by migration and the state of the economy. The party has been even more radical than the M5S, on certain issues. Its leading members, such as ATTILIO Fortana, have been quoted as saying,
“It (migration) is currently not under control and it’s creating social tension. It’s clearly unthinkable we could send hundreds of thousands back home instantly. But we have to get started and do everything to repatriate people”.
Salvini too has been a master of manipulating news of crimes by immigrants to his advantage. After a Nigerian migrant was charged for the murder of an 18 year old in Italy, an Italian man went on a shooting spree in Macerata, injuring 4 African immigrants, Salvini went on television to blame both crimes on “Italy’s out of control migration policy”. The messaging has helped them in the polls. While La Lega has been a part of Berlusconi’s centre-right coalition since 1994, analysts predict that if their coalition were to win power in 2018, it would play a much larger role than ever before. That is also clear from the campaign which has been dominated by the La Lega’s harsher messaging on Europe and Immigration.
Left to Right: Girogia Meloni (Brothers of Italy), Silvio Berlusconi (Forza Italia), Matteo Salvini (La Lega). Source: Iguana Press/ Getty Images.
Free and Equal
Pietro Grasso, Source: La Stampa.
The new party of the left. Free and Equal is a progressive, social democratic party that has a small representation in the current Parliament. They are led by Pietro Grasso and are polling around 5% of the vote. The Free and Equal is attempting to capture the share of vote alienated by Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party after the referendum on constitutional reforms. Unlike the other two new parties discussed above, they have not been able to take up a large share of the limelight.
One of the two leading traditional parties of Italy, the Democratic Party (PD) is led by former PM Matteo Renzi. Renzi is making a second run for the job after he had resigned due to the result of the referendum. The PD is widely expected to take a beating in this election because of the anti-incumbency and the state of the country’s economic health.
Matteo Renzi. Source: CITY AM
At a time when people are frustrated with the current system, the PD seems to stand as the symbol of establishment. This is proving to be quite costly for the party as traditional supporters seem to be abandoning it in favour of the newer, louder alternatives such as the La Lega or the 5 Star Movement or are planning to stay at home. In a recent interview to Politico, a long time PD leaning voter- Maria Flacco- while explaining her intention to abstain stated,
“I don’t believe in Renzi’s promises anymore, just like I never believed in Silvio Berlusconi’s”
This year, the PD is running on a plank to increase the minimum wage, abolishing the fiscal arrangements, allowing it to increase budget deficit to about 3% of GDP, and thereby increase spending and reduce taxes. However, the promises do not seem to have latched on, recent poll numbers have suggested that the PD will only come third, after the Centre-right coalition of Berlusconi and the 5 Star Movement.
Then there is the Grand Old Man of Italian politics- Silvio Berlusconi. At 81, Berlusconi is notorious for his ostentatious displays of wealth and close proximity to Vladamir Putin, with news stories of the two going on holidays together floating around from time to time. Berlusconi is technically disqualified from becoming Prime Minister until 2019, owing to a conviction in a 2013 tax fraud case after which he lost his position as the then Prime Minister. However, that has not stopped him from campaigning for his party- the Forza Italia, a centre-right party that seems to have pivoted in this election to give in to the anti-immigration, protectionist rhetoric.
Silvio Berlusconi, Source: RTE.
Berlusconi has succeeded in creating a broad coalition with neo-fascist groups and parties of the far-right such as the Brothers of Italy (led by Giorgia Meloni, it is the southern cousin of La Lega, running on much the same agendas), La Lega of Salvini, and a few other smaller parties. This has allowed him to ensure that while the 5 Star movement gains the largest share in opinion polls, his coalition edges past and becomes the largest likely Parliamentary grouping, giving him a shot at being a kingmaker, and potentially, taking the top job himself post 2019.
Giorgia Meloni, Source: Termometro Politico.
Berlusconi is no average conservative, he has a history of being brash about his opinions. The internet is filled with videos of him engaging in everything from the bizarre to the reprehensible. Here is a video of him telling a female BBC reporter to not have too strong a handshake because then no one would marry her.
So what can be done?
Well, the election is most likely to end in a stalemate, in which Berlusconi’s centre-right grouping would emerge as the single largest. Italy does not allow publishing of predictions around the time of the elections but a CNN average of the various polls shows that while the 5 Star movement commands the highest support as a single party, Berlusconi will end up being kingmaker.
There is no precedent in Italy of a double dissolution, meaning that the President is unlikely to call for a fresh election in case of a hung Parliament. Whatever the result may be, one thing is certain, the future looks bleak for Italy, and even more so for the rest of Europe.
About the Author
Prashant Khurana is a student of Law at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Hansraj College, Delhi University. Prashant is an accomplished debater, and an active participant and organiser of Model United Nations Conferences and was recently invited as a Chairperson at the University of Kent, United Kingdom for their MUN conference. He has appeared as a guest panellist on Headlines Today (presently, India Today) News Channel and has also interviewed personalities such as Mr. Mani Shankar Aiyar, Dr. Sambit Patra, the Ambassador of Canada to India, among others.