Forget about Brexit, the muddled election result in Germany or even Donald Trump’s ascent to power. In all those electoral upsets, traditional parties still had a role to play in the outcome and the aftermath of those results.
The same cannot be said of Sunday’s parliamentary election in Italy, which may well mark the first real solo triumph for anti-establishment protest parties in a Western liberal democracy.
With most of the votes accounted for, the numbers point to a hung parliament and a difficult road ahead to form a governing coalition, as all major political forces are hovering around 30 percent.
But the numbers also tell us that the 5 Star Movement, the grassroots anti-establishment movement that wants Italy to leave the Eurozone, has become the country’s largest party, capturing more than 32 percent of the vote.
Founded less than a decade ago by comedian Beppe Grillo to channel Italians’ disgust at their corrupt leadership and stagnant economy, the movement has surged in popularity, particularly in the underdeveloped south, thanks to pledges to clean up politics and grant stipends to all citizens. How this latter promise would be achieved, given the country’s massive public debt, remains unclear.
The other, even more unexpected result of the election, is that Silvio Berlusconi, possibly the precursor of all contemporary populist politicians, has been beaten at his own game by his closest allies.
The media-mogul-turned-conservative-politician, who has mounted an improbable political comeback in recent months after being forced to resign in 2011 amid a series of sex scandals and legal troubles, was widely seen as having a shot at winning the election, even though a conviction for tax fraud bars him from personally holding office until 2019.
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On paper, his center-right coalition did come out on top, gathering around 37 percent of the vote. But drill down into that result, and you’ll see that Berlusconi has just become a junior partner in his own coalition. His Forza Italia party has taken just 14 percent of the vote, and is now dwarfed by the League, the far-right anti-immigrant and anti-EU part led by Matteo Salvini.
A close European ally of Marine Le Pen’s National Front and an enthusiastic Trump supporter, this 44-year-old media-savvy firebrand has ridden to success on the wave of Italians’ resentment over the surging arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers on the country’s shores and the perceived overly immigrant-friendly policies of the European Union and the bloc’s major powers, particularly Germany.
In true Trumpian style, Salvini has accused George Soros and other progressive forces of seeking to "transform Italy into a huge refugee camp" and has promised to "cleanse" Italy of immigrants, "house by house, street by street, piazza by piazza, by force if necessary."
Salvini is already clamoring to be tapped as the next prime minister, but even though a final breakdown of seats in the Italian parliament is still pending, it appears likely that the center-right coalition will not clinch an absolute majority.
If you think that may be reassuring for moderates, think again.
Even if Berlusconi dumps the League, his Forza Italia forces and the incumbent center-left Democratic Party, which took just 19 percent of the vote, don’t have the numbers for a German-style grand coalition deal.
One until-recently-unthinkable, yet increasingly realistic scenario, is a grand coalition of populist parties between the 5 Star Movement and the League, which would have enough seats to govern.
The 5 Stars have recently been moving to the right on immigration, and they share with the League a loathing for the euro and for what they see as shady cabals of international banks and financial institutions that supposedly run the world and are damaging the country’s economy.
They may also find common ground on some of the other conspiracy theories that the 5 Stars have been successfully peddling through their blogs and social media outlets: from the idea that vaccines are dangerous to the suspicion that the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States were in inside job. Many of those conspiracy theories, often spread by the movement’s founding father Grillo on his blog, have a decidedly anti-Israeli or even anti-Semitic twist.
But there are also strong differences between the two parties. The League is a more traditional far-right movement, which taps into nationalistic, ethnocentric and xenophobic ideals, while the 5 Stars are a grassroots party that has promoted online direct democracy and attracted young idealistic voters from all sides of the political spectrum.
These supporters may balk at a deal with the League, tainted by association for its longstanding alliance with Berlusconi, seen by the 5 Stars as the symbol of everything that is wrong and corrupt with Italian politics.
So, it remains unclear whether Salvini can come to an agreement with the 5 Stars, whose candidate for premier is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, a fresh-faced college dropout who had virtually no political experience before he was chosen to be a vice-president of the lower house of parliament in the last legislature.
Another last, but very unlikely, scenario, is for the center-left to agree to serve in a government with the 5 Stars, even though the head of the Democratic Party, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, has always ruled out that possibility. But now Renzi may be on his way out as party chief following Sunday’s dismal showing at the polls, and any chance of an alliance with the 5 Stars will depend on the ensuing power struggle within the center-left.
Without a clear majority, it will be up to Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, to navigate through the complex negotiations that will follow in the coming weeks and eventually tap a prime minister to form a government. Mattarella may attempt to put in place a caretaker cabinet that would shepherd through the divided parliament a new electoral law – one that might ensure a more clear-cut result – before taking the country back to the polls.
What appears almost certain is that for the coming months, both Italy and the entire EU will be wracked by this new source of instability and uncertainty over the bloc’s future.
And that may be exactly the payoff that at least one country, which has been following these elections very closely, had been hoping for. Ahead of the vote, Italian officials and analysts had been warning for months about the danger of Russian meddling in the campaign, through fake news outlets and Kremlin-controlled trolls.
Both the League and the 5 Star Movement have been cuddling up to Moscow in recent years, voicing support for its foreign policy, coming out against EU sanctions on Russia and forging strong ties with the ruling United Russia party.
If one of these parties ultimately ends up in power - after this or yet another round of voting - the true winner of the Italian election may end up being someone who was never even on the ballot in the first place: one Vladimir Putin.