Italy’s centre cannot govern without the support of populist parties

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Italy wakes up on Monday morning to find out that the future of their government is still as unclear as before their votes were counted. 

It is obvious that there will be the need for a coalition, as polling had suggested for weeks, and the identity of the country’s next prime minister is still somewhat of a guessing game. It will likely be weeks more before the political horse trading is finally finished and whatever government is finally formed can get down to business.

However, some major changes have taken place. While Italy is no stranger to political uncertainty, the rise of the populist parties – which may have taken as much as nearly 50 per cent of the vote when all is said and done – is a shot across the bows for the traditional centre-left or centre-right parties that have formed the foundation for decades of Italian government.

The anti-establishment 5 Star Movement (5SM), built on the Italian population’s anger over the country’s economic situation and the issue of corruption went beyond expectation and will be the single biggest party. The darker anti-immigration La Lega, or League – formally known as the Northern League – also appears to have done better than expected. Those two parties will ensure two things in the aftermath of the election. The first is that Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia, and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) of Matteo Renzi will likely neither have enough support to try and create a government that reflects the election without support from at least one of them. 

The second is that one of the major issues of the election – immigration – will still be front and centre. Both parties had called for hard-line approaches on the issue. The League had called for mass deportations, something their coalition partner Forza had also called for, while the founder of 5SM, Beppe Grillo, has also said undocumented migrants should be expelled from Italy. The party’s current leader, Luigi Di Maio, has likened sea rescues of refugees and migrants as a “sea-taxi service” that must be stopped immediately. The fact that 5SM looks to have gained about 32 per cent of the vote, and the League around 23 per cent will only likely spread fear among the communities such measures would affect.

Forza also looks to have garnered around 13 per cent, but with its right-wing coalition partners the far-right League and the Brothers of Italy, it will end up with around 37 per cent of the vote and will likely try and take the first stab at convincing others over to its side to form a government. In terms of other coalitions, 5SM would have the most options, but is hobbled by the fact the party leadership has made so much noise about not wanting to be in a coalition.

If that position changes, they have issues in common with the League, not just immigration, but a healthy scepticism of the European project. But, many of their more left-leaning voters would hate a link-up with the League. 5SM could also reach out to the centre-left, but would the PD, who was the ruling party, agree to take a junior role in such a partnership? The PD will feel demoralised after a poor showing in the election, despite possibly being the second biggest single party overall, and such a deal might be a step too far.