Image: Matteo Salvini, widely regarded as the face of “The League” Party and Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, flaunts an anti-migrant shirt at a rally.
By Francesco Spirli
Domestic discontent, an economic crisis, and years of political dysfunction have raised several questions about Italy’s role in Europe and made the general elections of 2018 critical to the country’s future. The anticipation for a new government began after the dissolution of the Italian Parliament by President Mattarella in late 2017. The general elections to select the 18th legislature of the Italian Republic were held in March of 2018 and resulted with no coalition or party winning the outright majority of the votes.
However, the right-wing League Party, led by the Euro-skeptic Matteo Salvini, won a plurality of seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, while the anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio won the popular vote. On the other hand, the Democratic Party, within a centre-left coalition, led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi came in third. After three strenuous and highly politicized months of negotiation, the Five Star Movement and the League joined forces in a coalition that selected Giuseppe Conte as the new Prime Minister.
The 2018 general elections reflected the failure of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) to address the rising tensions and discontent that had been brewing in Italy since the Five Star Movement (M5S) won 25 percent of the vote in 2013. At that time, M5S was being led by the Italian comedian, Beppe Grillo, who tapped into a “drain the swamp” mentality while promising to start a “political war for generations.” This malediction seemed to finally come true when in 2018, the PD only won around 18 percent of the vote, the worst showing in its history. This was no surprise to Italians who saw the party’s platform of funding lower education, higher minimum wages, creating pathways to citizenship for migrants’ children, and a month of compulsory civil service for the young, as a step in the wrong direction for an economically stagnant population. The PD’s platform fell short when compared to the League’s promises of a flat income-tax rate, a minimum pension and a stop to the flow of migrants into Italy. The Five Star Movement’s promises of a universal allowance for citizens, business tax cuts, and the dropping of retirement age further generated support among the vast majority of Southern Italians and the ever-growing population of the elderly. The victory of M5S and the League took advantage of a populist, anti-establishment “Italy First” mentality. Many of the M5S and League voters were also fed up with the mainstream parties and wanted to ensure that the PD did not gain a majority. This was mostly because until after the elections, the PD was led by the former prime minister, Renzi. At one time thought to be a saviour of the Italian left, Renzi’s government quickly became unpopular. Claims of an authoritarian and even arrogant style of leadership that failed to deliver on overly-ambitious promises to fix the Italian economy and overhaul its political culture caused voters to look elsewhere. Following the fall of the Democratic Party in the elections, Italy’s relationship to the European Union grandly altered. While the League and the Five Star Party have yet to call for the exit of Italy from the European Union, they marshalled widespread support for the slackening of ties that they claim are holding Italy back. However, the League’s leader, Salvini, did see a use for Italy’s membership in the EU when he began calling for a Europe-wide alliance against mass-migration at an Italian far-right rally. This is in fact, the same man who called for a “mass cleansing of migrants, street by street and piazza by piazza” only a few years ago. Perhaps the worst aspect of this sudden political shift is not only the change in leadership but also the rise of an anti-immigrant feeling into mainstream Italian society. In a lot of ways, Salvini supporters’ calls to “close the ports” are ominously similar to the “build the wall” chants heard at Trump rallies. Thus, though the new parties in power may find it difficult—if not impossible—to fulfill their promises in a time when Italy’s economy is on the verge of disaster, their anti-immigration policies and Euro-skeptic leaders are likely to do irreparable damage to the rights of migrants and to Italy’s membership within the EU.
Francesco is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin studying Economics and Political Science. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.