Berlusconi's out but Italy's right has a new hero.
There are already clear winners and losers in the Italian election, despite the uncertainty the country now faces after the projected election results, which indicate that no party or coalition has won the majority needed to form a government. In a nutshell: the Five Star Movement and the League have had excellent elections, while the Democratic Party and Forza Italia have had their worst ones ever.
The two largest parties, in both houses, are likely to be the Five Star Movement and the League. Five Star has consolidated and built on its remarkable 2013 debut. That's not so surprising, but it's worth remembering that plenty of pundits in Italy and elsewhere were proclaiming the Five-Star bubble had burst whenever it did badly in local elections since then. It hasn't. And that’s despite it having had fairly troubled experiences running a handful of cities, especially Rome.
While Five Star is the number one party, the biggest “winner” for me in this election is the League. What the party’s leader Matteo Salvini has done since taking over in late 2013 is remarkable. From four percent in the February 2013 election, and commentators - yet again - writing the party off as finished, Salvini has taken it to its best ever result in a national election, at around 18 percent.
It shows, again, that parties like Danish People's Party, Front National and the League can not only survive the passing of charismatic founder-leaders, but thrive. These are not parties (like Forza Italia, we presume) whose existence and success depends on the founder-leader.
Which brings us to one of the night’s losers, Berlusconi: for the first time ever, he has not been able to gain significantly from start to end of campaign. Forza Italia’s result itself is bad, but losing the primacy within the Right to the League is worse. Berlusconi is reduced from being the main person on the Right over 25 years to being the glue that holds the coalition together. His political demise has been proclaimed many times over the past two decades, but this really is a massive blow.
The biggest “losers” however are the Democratic Party and its leader, Matteo Renzi. This is probably not so surprising either: on the one hand, centre-left parties across Europe are losing votes and seem to be in a permanent identity crisis; on the other, the Italian centre-left, yet again, has been beset by infighting.
Renzi is stepping down as leader. This seems an excessively knee-jerk reaction. At the European elections in 2014, he led it to its best result ever with over 40 percent and he has largely remoulded the party. A spell in opposition would have given him the space to rebuild its popularity.
In any case, I would be amazed if this is really the end of Renzi’s political career. We've heard countless "end of" stories about the League and Berlusconi in the past 20 years. It was never the end for them. I expect Renzi to be back, sooner or later. What Democratic Party supporters should hope is that he does not become yet another failed leader-turned-backseat driver, as those like Massimo D’Alema have become. They have a lot of responsibility too for the current state of the party.
Finally, as regards what will happen now. I think Mario Monti’s time as prime minister – and especially his decision to then run in 2013 – has probably put paid to technocratic governments in Italy for the moment. So, a party political solution will have to be found, even though the numbers are against all the existing coalitions.
I’m sceptical that the League, having finally gained primacy within the Right, would agree to enter government with the Five Star Movement, to which it would have to play second fiddle. But one option might be that the League will prop up a minority Five-Star administration, in exchange for policy concessions, especially on immigration.
That way, the League could consolidate its new leadership within the Right, take credit for policy changes concerning its key issues, but avoid too much blame for any of the calamities that a Five-Star government might bring. And it would put it in a much stronger position come the next general election.
_Duncan McDonnell is Professor of Politics at Griffith University School of Government and International Relations _
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