Italy at the polls: Populism by region

It has been many years since Italian elections received extraordinary attention. Much of it is due to the conviction of many, including the infamous Steve Bannon, that the result of the parliamentary elections in Italy reflects a strong push toward populism and turmoil à la Donald Trump.

In fact, the outcome in Italy represents a win for what Italians call “anti-sistema,” a massive shift to a party – the “five stars” of comedian Beppe Grillo and the young head of the movement Luigi Di Maio – that has stirred and led the upheaval of a mass of Italians who are indignant about economic stagnation, corruption and the decrepit character of present political leadership. If one wants to call that Trumpism, it may be understandable. But it is the wrong depiction of the current political reality in Italy.

The emerging forces in Italy are the “five stars” movement and the League, a force that used to be called Northern League for the simple reason that it was localized in the north as a fierce adversary of the central government in Rome. The two “anti-system”forces – anti-establishment in their Anglo-Saxon counterpart – are similar in their contempt of traditional politics but they are in open conflict on one important issue in Italy: the fiscal redistribution of national income.

The overall picture of the Italian political watershed illustrates not a slide toward a destructive anti-European repositioning, as many are ready to depict it, but rather an extraordinary reshaping that has deconstructed the old style leftist party – the Democratic Party of former prime minister Matteo Renzi – and made the “five stars’ into the new protagonist of the ongoing sea change in the country. In short, the “five stars” have become the “real left” that bears the banners of equality and egalitarianism, redistribution of wealth and the protection of the weak by means of assistance rather than the creation of opportunities, and, last but not least, anti-capitalism.Alongside the “five stars,” the League and its leader Matteo Salvini have escaped from the northern ghetto and become a national party. The principal losers of this remarkable turn of events are the former prime minister and laughing stock of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi, and his party, Forza Italia.

Some commentators see the Italian vote as a kind of triumph of populism as embodied in those two “new kids in the block,” but the reality is that the new protagonists enjoy the support of different reservoirs of consensus and as a consequence, they become representatives of different interests.

The basic truth is that the Italian middle class no longer sees itself as the heart and the bulwark of the country. Its crisis may have something in common with the emergence of Trump in the U.S. and the extremist forces, once marginal, in Europe, particularly in France, Germany, and Austria.

In Italy, however, the upheaval is more profound as the ascendance of a “tri-polar”system does not extend to the whole of the nation but seems to cut it into regional blocs. The northern region is developing into a base for the center-right and the League, while the south has become the platform of the “five stars” and its policies of solidarity (including a so-called “citizenship income”, i.e. a monthly check of 780 Euros for the jobless).

The center is a post-communist region where the weakened Democratic Party, having lost 15 percent of its vote, is hanging on due to the fact that it is no longer a party of the traditional left, but rather a centrist force with a liberal appearance not unlike the German SPD or British Labour. Such is the political playing field in Italy that one would make the point that just as 150 years ago, at the eve of Italian independence, the nation is still divided into three parts: the north, as an enlarged Piedmont-based Kingdom of Sardinia; the center, as the Grand Duchy of Tuscany; and in the south, the Bourbons’ Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

Today’s Italy is truly the repository of several territorial components with differing interests and aspirations. As a result of the disappearance of the old “system” caused by the election, the territorial politics that are shaping up will make governing Italy even more difficult.

There is no longer a partition between the left and right to be mediated by a political leader such as Berlusconi or Renzi. The picture is further complicated by the No. 1 preoccupation in the mind of the electorate: the wave of illegal immigrants that has burdened the country to the breaking point. Trump and his anti-immigration policies are a distant point of reference.

The best hope that one can nourish for Italy is that the “new kids in the block” learn a quick tutorial about the need to work with Europe and abandon their misguided populist identification. To quote Benito Mussolini, “Governing Italy is not difficult. It is useless.”

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