Why Did Italians Turn Their Back on Traditional Parties?

The traditional parties and their perceived hypocritcal sense of responsibility are often seen as the direct responsibles for a deteriorating present and an uncertain future.

The Italian election result may have been a surprise for those who do not constantly monitor the political developments in the peninsula. However, there were already clear signs of what was going to happen. Therefore, it would now be pretty simplistic to dwell on the failure of the political system (which is not the case) and the anti-establishment, populist nature of the vote, as many are tempted to do.

Indeed, while the inherently self-destructive center-left, increasingly weaker and closer to the low percentages of other European parties from the socialist family, is as usual fully-focused on the traditional and liberating ‘analysis of defeat’, Berlusconi pretends to ignore what is happening to the right of Forza Italia by disperately shouting to the World that he ‘continues to be the playmaker of the center-right’. Whereas we need to come to terms with the new reality and analyze in-depth what are the true causes which prompted Italian voters to turn their back on the traditional parties.

The Monti’s government as the start of it all

2011 was the year that signalled the beginning of a small-scale political revolution that only Greece can say to have experienced in the whole of Europe. Indeed, in November, Berlusconi had to resign due to his government’s lack of international credibility and immobility towards the deep financial crisis enveloping the country. In just one year, from January to December, the 10 year bond spread between Italy and Germany rocketed from 173 to 528 points, well beyond the alert level, triggering the definitive outbreak of the public debt crisis. Italy was then considered part of the so-called ‘PIGS’ (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain), the offensive acronym referring to those EU member states’ economies unable to refinance their debt or to bail-out banks.

In this context, Silvio Berlusconi was compelled to resign and the former European Commissioner Mario Monti was called by the then President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, to form a national unity government without a single party representative, but sustained by all the political forces in the Parliament, with the only exception of the former governing party Northern League.

This dramatic situation prompted increasing tension, as Italians perceived a complete loss of sovereignty on their own political choices and future. Berlusconi himself and the father-founder of the Five Star Movement, the former comedian Beppe Grillo, have later referred on several occasions to a coup carried out by handlers of unspecified foreign origins. In addition, the EU mantra on ‘responsibility’ and ‘accountability’ pushed the new technocratic executive to implement the dreaded misure lacrime e sangue (the painful ‘tears and blood’ economic measures) beyond the public’s expectations. This was the case of the Fornero reform, introduced amid feroucious protests, that increased the pension age and lowered the guaranteed social scurity benefits to limit the state’s pension expenditure.

Therefore, the consequent increase in social tensions started driving the first big wedge between Italian voters and a political class that, somehow, found itself compelled to reluctantly support the unpopular Monti’s government.

Berlusconi’s downfall and the birth of the Five Star Movement

These events left large parts of the center-right electorate without their only unifying political reference. Indeed, Berlusconi had always been a great catalyst for political apathy and everymen when the Italian economy was still at full capacity, while he represented for them a sort of reassuring Maya’s veil in the first years of financial crisis. Indeed, the ideological cleavage of the Second Republic unfolded along the traditional left-right divide, and the media mogul perfectly embodied the well-rooted fear for the left, stemming from the Cold War era, in many sections of society. When the Christian Democrats imploded due to the big Tangentopoli corruption scandal, Berlusconi immediately managed to weld together very different stances against the ‘communist danger’, from the liberals to the radical right.

At the same time, the only glue binding together the left, the ‘anti-berlusconismo‘, could not be exploited anymore as predominant electoral argument. Indeed, part of the political base, fiercely hostile to the man considered the root of all evil, has never forgiven the Democratic Party for their joint support to the technocratic executive. This is the turning point of Italian politics. At this point, all parties had lost their credibility to the eyes of millions of voters. This situation allowed room from left to right to the birth of the Five Star Movement, initially much more radical than today, that pledged to crush an entirely corrupt political class to the sound of vaffanculo (fuck off).

A disappointment named Renzi

There is no doubt that Matteo Renzi, former mayor of Florence and rampant figure arising from the new ‘glamorous’ left, initially represented a transversal hope for the renewal of Italy. When Pier Luigi Bersani, the then Secretary of the Democratic Party and odds-on favorite to become Prime Minister, did not manage to win the absolute majority in the 2013 general election because of a disastrous electoral campaign exclusively centered on his opposition to Berlusconi, Renzi was abruptly seen as the saviour of the country. From a position of strength, he then pledged to start a profound process of rottamazione (scrapping) in a constructive but dismissive manner, opposite to the frightening fury of the rising Five Star Movement.

In 2014, his scramble to power became reality when, freshman secretary of the party, he won big in the European election, reaching a historical 40% and surprisingly lapping the Five Stars. However, he quickly wasted this unexpected political capital when, firmly convinced that the only way to preserve consensus was to follow his own reform path, even at the cost of alienating his numerous internal opponents, he called the Prime Minister in charge and party colleague Enrico Letta to resign in his favour, as a natural consequence of him being elected Secretary of the Democratic Party. Renzi, contradicting his own famous tweet #enricostaisereno (don’t worry Enrico), pressured the party leadership to embrace this solution. During his premiership, the former mayor became always more confrontational, causing insoluble breakups within an already extremely divided party.

This political approach was later served when, gambling himself away, he promised to step down from office if the constitutional referendum he proposed to change the political system failed in 2016. For one year, all opponents, even those within the Democratic Party, campaigned against him by pushing aside the heart of the matter. Renzi, weakened also by the low approval ratings on his economic policies and by the outbreak of the migrant crisis, was finally punished by an electorate that now considered him arrogant and presumptuous, corroborating the Latin motto ‘sic transit gloria mundi’ and leaving the door open for anti-establishment movements one more time.

The migrant crisis

The political developments between 2011 and 2016 explain the steady growth of the Five Star Movement, but the above mentioned outbreak of the migrant crisis is the main raison d’être of the booming Northern League. This party, as its name suggests, was founded at the beginning of the Second Republic in the early ’90s, as a regional force whose aim was to separate the rich and industrial North (Padania) from the rest of Italy for mere fiscal reasons. Coming to some rhetorical abyss, like when the farther-founder Umberto Bossi said to a lady who was jeering him to hang the Italian flag in the toilet, the Northern League was soon incorporated in the mainstream institutional system when, together with Forza Italia, they formed the center-right coalition that won the election in 1994.

However, as the years passed, the party was engulfed in different corruption scandals that reduced it to extremely low levels. In 2013, Matteo Salvini, a rising young political figure, took over Bossi’s leadership after more than twenty years, marking an existential turning point in its history. Indeed, Salvini understood that in Italy there was room to set up a new nationwide euroskeptic, anti-migrant political force that could grow to the right of Forza Italia, along the lines of what the Front National did in France, finally outweighing the Populars.

Moreover, Salvini succeeded to the former leadership exactly during the first stirrings of the migrant crisis, shortly after the collapse of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, that paved the way to the very first landings in Lampedusa, a Sicilian island located further South than Tunis. Indeed, all of a sudden, Italy had to take on the burden of the second highest migratory flow by sea of the EU after Greece, compelling the Italian government to establish large-scale naval operations that rescued migrants in the Mediterranean.

However, many member states, amongst which the United Kingdom, harshly criticized Rome for creating an unintended pull factor that pushed migrants to attempt the crossings. In addition, the Visegrad countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary) refused to take on asylum seekers from Italy and Greece, despite a vote within the European Union that would have redistributed the quota between the countries. This lack of international solidarity, together with the increasing sense of insecurity perceived in the Italian provinces, provoked strong anti-European and even stronger anti-migrant feelings in the public opinion. From that moment on, the burning issue became immigration, supplanting the topic of political corruption. Therefore, Matteo Salvini has been tactically perfect, giving a new guise to a party of the old guard and capitalizing this dialectical shift by giving voice to the deepest fears of a large part of the population.

Promises as pro-active factors

While this more or less chronological digression explains the general background of the election, many people have been definitively convinced to vote for the Five Star Movement and the Northern League with specific promises made during the electoral campaign. Indeed, both parties expressed their readiness to become governing forces and pledged to improve the lives of the citizens with alternative measures that would require enormous financial covers or structural changes in the countrywide system.

For example, Matteo Salvini pledged on several occasions to repartiate more than a half million migrants to their countries of origin within five years. For the leader of the Northern League, ‘the only antidote to racism is to control, regulate and limit immigration. There are millions of Italians in economic difficulty. Italians are not racist, but out-of-control immigration brings with it far from positive reactions. We want to prevent that’. The recent shooting of six African migrants in Macerata by a former Northern League local candidate not only ended up esaperating this common belief, but became the chance to acquit and justify the growing intolerance.

Berlusconi, Salvini’s closer ally, adopted a more radical narrative to keep up with this change in the public mood. However, the more he tried to keep control of the entire center-right by winking at the pro-European middle-class and proposing a moderate Prime Minister such as the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani, the more he lost support by an electorate now focused on issues such as immigration, security and border control, where he could not promise more than Salvini did.

Same story for the Five Star Movement, whose political program sets out the introduction of an unconditional basic income, a promise that could be palatable for everyone, no matter the cost. In Southern Italy, where unemployment hits hard, some job centers have received requests for the basic income already during these first days immediately after the election, as some people have blatantly misinterpreted the outcome of the vote as an automatic achievement of this craved measure of welfare.

Italy not a sui generis case

In conclusion, once an ‘instinctive’ narrative takes roots thanks to one party, it is hard for all others to compete with it, without claiming to be something whole new or adopting similar narratives. This is what happened in Italy, not only before the election but, more generally, in recent history. The Italians, due to a long chain of uncontrollable events leading to this situation, had to adjust their old, untenable personal expectations and ambitions, as the average quality of life went down and, in some cases, plummeted.

The traditional parties and their perceived hypocritcal sense of responsibility are often seen as the direct responsibles for a deteriorating present and an uncertain future, as in the public imagination the country is now considered as irreparably broken, despite the recent signs of improvement. On the contrary, the anti-establishment parties gave voice to the anger and the frustration of a large part of the population, up to the point where bad politics became the cause of all the woes.

Therefore, this new political class, far from prompting the collapse of the system, normalized radical positions, bringing them at the heart of the political agenda and compelling the old parties to fight on a ground where they knew these would lose. So, if it is true that Italy might seem a sui generis case due to the high level of dramatization of politics that has always accompanied the country since before its unification, it is also true that an easily replicable set of circumstances could lead to the occurence of similar scenarios everywhere.