On Thursday, the majority of British people voted to leave the European Union. A decision that shocked many observers. It was a slap in the face of the established political elites, the majority of which had supported strongly the ‘remain’ campaign. The Brexit referendum was a historic moment which will not only redefine the future of the United Kingdom, but also ‘rattle the Continent and rock political establishments throughout the West’. Eurosceptism is deep rooted throughout the Union. About one-third of the current 751 MEPs sitting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg are representatives of anti-EU Parties. France, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, and Italy all have already their rising share of populist parties campaigning against the EU’s interference in their country’s affairs. After the UK referendum, many of these parties across Europe want the same. “Victory for Liberty!” commented Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front party, who wants France to follow in the footsteps of Britain. There is a clear and present danger that the desire to leave may quickly spread like a virus across the whole Union.
One country to keep a close watch on is certainly Italy where, only a week ago, the Eurosceptic Five Star Movement scored a milestone victory in the second and final round of the local elections. While the turn-out was quite low (below average at just above 50%) the meaning of the result was loud and clear: Italian’s politics is once again in turmoil and this time it is much more than a protest vote. It was a resounding defeat for the Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and his Democratic Party and a remarkable feat for the Movement - even more significant than its success at the last national election in 2013. ‘Rome is ours’, ‘Now it’s our time’, ‘Let’s change everything’. Such were the cries of joy (that is, the hashtags) around which the Movement supporters gathered online to celebrate Virginia Raggi and Chiara Appendino, the newly elected Mayors of Rome and Turin. Raggi received 67% of the preferences (twice as much as Roberto Giachetti, her opponent) to become the Italian capital’s first ever female mayor. While Appendino gained 54%, 10 points more than Piero Fassino, the former mayor of Turin.
They are here to stay
Started in 2009 as a natural offspring of the comedian Beppe Grillo’s blog and as a rebuke of the political establishment’s lack of interest in the initiatives of the blog’s supporters, the Five Star Movement has come a long way. Their first run in 2012 was successful, but far from spectacular: they won mayoral seats in the important city of Parma, along with the smaller centres of Comacchio and Mime. But less than a year later, they surprised everyone at the general election in February 2013 where the movement received 26% of the national preferences, which translated in 54 Senators and in 109 Chamber of Deputies representatives. Quite an unprecedented result for a first timer. Overnight Grillo’s movement became the major political force in Italy. Only the highly criticised electoral law prevented the movement from taking control of the Parliament (which went to a coalition between the left and centre-right parties). Many argued that the Movement’s victory was a fluke; that Grillo and his followers had capitalised on the widespread discontent of Italian people; that the 26% mark was most likely more the result of a protest-vote against the establishment, than genuine political affiliation. The suspicion was somewhat confirmed by the Movement’s tame performance at the 2014 European Union Election, when their 21% of the preferences, though far from a bad result, paled in comparison with the 40% of Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party. But European Union elections in Italy and elsewhere in Europe are not always indicative of what the electorate really thinks of the major parties. The last two years however have been an important learning experience for the Movement, during which the popularity of Renzi’s leadership suffered from a stream of arguable policies, scandals, in-fighting inside the Democratic Party and the widespread feeling that Mr Renzi himself was neither that much of a leftist, nor that much different from Silvio Berlusconi, the controversial leader of the centre-right.
So it is not surprising to find out that, halfway through their first legislature, despite a series of setbacks and defections, and less than exciting results at the last round of European Elections, the Movement is still among the favourites for next general election in 2018. The victories on 19 June have only reinforced their status as a possible front-runner. The Movement won in total 19 out of the 20 Mayoral seats where its candidates had reached the second and final round of elections (all contests were against candidates of the Democratic Party). The average age of the winners (7 women and 12 men) was 39. These are not flukes, the Movement is here to stay.
Turmoil and Politics
These results not only shake Matteo Renzi’s aura of election invincibility, but also tell us something about the state of turmoil that Italian politics is in once again. The victories in Turin, the home of Italy’s automotive industry and a Democratic Party core constituency for the past 16 years, and in Rome, the country’s capital, usually a battle ground between the old Left and the Centre-Right, send out important signals. The political pulse of the nation has changed its rhythm. The growing disconnect between the people and Party politics has rendered irrelevant the historic division between left and right, and it has opened the door to new political forces whose appeal goes beyond that old paradigm and runs across the whole political spectrum. The Movement’s success tells us that the old alternatives have lost their charm; that the Democratic Party has lost its momentum; that the Centre Right hasn’t yet found a valid substitute for Silvio Berlusconi’s charismatic leadership; that the country (especially at local level) is in deep crisis and needs politicians who are not just content to sweep the mess under the rug. Italians are looking for a political force that will deliver real change.
Authors: Giovanni Navarria, Postdoctoral Fellow, Sydney Democracy Network, University of Sydney