Italy returns to the Bourbon kingdom

The far right feels the lure of power

The Italian election has uprooted the country’s political geography. The centre-right coalition led by Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia gained overall control in the north and the centre, and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement (M5S) emerged as the dominant force in the south. This confined the centre-left coalition led by Matteo Renzi’s Democratic party (PD) to relatively small pockets in the centre and in bigger cities.

The traditional left-right divide has been superseded by one between north and south, with a redrawing of the map that brings back memories of the Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in pre-unified Italy. M5S has inherited a substantial portion of the centre-left vote and the League has dented Forza Italia’s support severely, under the stewardship of a new generation of leaders in their 30s and 40s, which in itself represents a sea change in Italian politics.

M5S, at over 32%, is the largest party. At 36%, the centre right is the winning coalition, with the League at 17% overtaking Forza Italia at 14% and Salvini preparing to replace Berlusconi as the coalition’s leader. The PD was widely expected to perform poorly, but its 19% rout was lower than even the direst predictions. The poor showing of the hard-left Free and Equal party at 3.5% points to the final waning, after more than 70 years, of the communist influence. That being said, Renzi and Berlusconi, the two big losers, are definitely not out of the game.

A flawed electoral law designed to ensure victory for Renzi had the opposite effect and is likely to increase fragmentation. M5S and the League, the two outright winners, have been given the opportunity – and the challenge – of morphing from populist protest movements into the main reference points of a new political equilibrium: an improbable but not impossible task in due course. Di Maio was quick to assume a governmental stance, softening the tone of M5S rhetoric and taking a cautiously pro-EU and pro-euro approach.

A movement that derived its strength from a total rejection of traditional politics could have serious difficulty in stomaching such a change. Opposition to Di Maio’s stance from within M5S has been subdued so far because of the party’s electoral success. However, there have been rumblings from various quarters, which could seriously constrain his actions.

The situation is more complex with the centre right, where Salvini’s nativist and anti-European line is resisted by the same moderate right whose support is crucial for his claim to overall leadership. Here is where Berlusconi could come to the fore. As a countervailing force to Salvini’s extremism, he could provide the credibility and legitimacy needed, both at home and abroad, to bolster the coalition.

As with Di Maio, opposition from within his ranks could prove difficult to overcome, despite Berlusconi’s mediating skills. Like Di Maio, however, the lure and lore of power could provide a not insignificant boost. Apart from occasional absurd utterings, the main drawback of both parties – and especially of M5S – lies in their overall mediocrity and lack of experience.

An M5S and centre-right government could count on a comfortable majority, but would face strong internal opposition from both sides and would be impossible to place under a single leadership. It would be unacceptable to Europe and would be a calamity for Italy.

Possible alternatives to a hung parliament and early elections could be a government led by M5S or the centre right, with support from the centre left or parts thereof. Renzi had no alternative but to resign after his defeat, but said he would only step down once the political stakes had become clear, adding that the PD would remain in opposition in any case. He outpaced the internal minority that was conspiring to remove him, but the move may prove short-sighted, as a growing number will press for a deal. The chance of a similar set-up with the centre right is more remote, given Salvini’s stand on Europe and on economic policy.

Di Maio is determined to prove his mettle at the head of a government, the PD resents the idea of being excluded from power and newly elected MPs are loath to see their mandate cut short. None of this could prove enough for a viable solution – or even a decent one – and the fear of prolonged instability could open the way for Sergio Mattarella, the president of the republic, who is known to be wary of a Spanish-type series of inconclusive returns to the polls, to resort to a ‘government of the president’.

Voted for by all parties, it would have a limited mandate of adopting a new electoral law and paving the way for elections in a year or two. This could, paradoxically, provide some stability and pacify the markets. Italy being Italy, untangling the situation could take long and have unforeseen turns.

Antonio Armellini was Italian Ambassador to India and Nepal from 2004-08. He is a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Board, International Institute for Strategic Studies and Istituto Affari Internazionali.

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