Italy vote results show deep disenchantment

By George N. Tzogopoulos Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/12 19:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Politics in Italy is often driven by loud disagreements among parties, surprising developments and some dysfunction. It is not a coincidence that - due to discontent and external pressures - four different prime ministers have served after Silvio Berlusconi had to resign in November 2011: Mario Monti, Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni. Delicate balances need to be found and smart political maneuvering is required to guarantee political stability.

In recent years Italy is also suffering an economic crisis. Although the country managed to exit its deepest post-war recession in 2014, it remains among the most sluggish economies in Europe. Its GDP, for instance, is still almost 6 percent lower than it was before the outbreak of the financial crisis 10 years ago. More importantly, unemployment remains significantly higher than the eurozone average and young Italians are facing important problems in finding a job in the country or are not satisfied with the salaries they receive.

Under these circumstances, Italian citizens voted in the recent national election and expressed their anger. They thus created an even more divided political landscape. The Five Star Movement won the election. Moreover, the center-right alliance saw the fairly traditional conservative Forza Italia overtaken by the party of former northern secessionists who are now more broadly nationalists, League. Also, the radical right Fratelli d'Italia party gained share.

The election result makes it a prerequisite for Italy to form a coalition should it want to avoid a new election. Different combinations are currently examined. In all scenarios either the Five Star Movement or the League need to support the government. One of them even predicts cooperation between the two. Five Star and the League have called for rewriting treaties with Europe to give Italy more sovereignty. It is this agenda which is creating serious skepticism in the EU in a period during which some member states - for example Hungary - are clearly expressing their opposition to Brussels bureaucracy.

Future developments will depend on the real will of both Five Star and the League parties to remain committed to their pre-election political programs. The failure of the Greek government to impose its term to the country's creditors in the first six months of 2015 demonstrates the existing limits in difficult negotiations. Italy is much more powerful than Greece though, at least at the economic level. While the EU could cope with a Grexit, this will not be necessarily the case with Italexit. The Italian public debt amounts to about 130 percent of GDP and the perspectives for a bailout are rather grim. So, both Five Star and the League might not be easily prepared to abandon their ideas, being well aware of Brussels' weakness.

From another perspective, the Italian election result shows that Berlusconi was not any longer able to make his dream a reality and return to day-to-day politics as the leader of the conservative political spectrum. And the low percentage of the social-democratic party mirrors the decline of relevant political parties in Europe as recently happened in Germany. The failure of former prime minister Matteo Renzi to win the referendum in December 2016 marked the beginning of the end of his political career which happened after the election.

The day after will not be easy for Italy. Mainstream political parties are losing power and populists are gaining ground. While structural reforms are important and the Italian banking sector remains problematic, inexperienced politicians will possibly have the future of the country in their hands. A complicated relationship between Rome and Brussels might start.

In this complicated relationship, Brussels will only lose if it keeps its role as a policeman dictating reforms and painful measures. The Italian election is a characteristic example of European citizens expressing their disenchantment with the current modus operandi of the EU. The lack of vision for the future and the parallel insistence on technocratic and bureaucratic details are naturally fueling Euroscepticism. Whether the new serious signal from Italy will push Europe into changing course will be realized soon.

The author is a lecturer at the European Institute in Nice, France.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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