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Anti-immigrant populists just cleaned up in Italy's election

"What we’re seeing is profound political change driven by groups of voters who feel very anxious about the identity issues of immigration, national security, and terror.”
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Populist and far-right parties dominated Italy’s national election Sunday, in an anti-establishment surge that leaves the country’s politics deadlocked and its center-left in disarray.

With more than 75 percent of the vote counted Monday, none of the three main coalitions look able to secure the majority required to govern outright, raising the prospect of weeks of tense negotiations to form a government.


Who were the biggest winners?

The Eurosceptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing nationalist Northern League were celebrating Monday, landing more than half of the national vote between them.

The largest political bloc to emerge is the center-right grouping, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (Go Italy). Surprisingly, the strongest party within the bloc is now the Northern League, a nativist, nationalist party that tallied around 18 percent of the vote – a swing that increases their seats in the lower house from 22 to 123. By contrast, Forza Italia, which had been seen as the senior partner, received about 14 percent of the vote.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the Northern League, claimed Monday that his party had the right to lead the new government.

The Northern League took the hardest anti-immigration line during the campaign; its “Italians First” message resonated with an electorate anxious over illegal migration flows that have seen 600,000 people cross the Mediterranean in the past four years, many in smugglers’ boats from Libya.

“We are packed with drug dealers, rapists, burglars — and the League is the solution,” Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said at a campaign rally last week.

The populist Five Star Movement, founded by comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo in 2009, emerged as the strongest single party, on track to win 32 percent. It is defiantly anti-establishment, with policies drawn from left and right: tough on immigration, critical of the European Union, friendly toward Russia, but also in favor of universal basic income and environmental protections.


Who was the biggest loser?

Former prime minister Matteo Renzi’s ruling center-left Democratic party suffered the greatest humiliation, falling to 19 per cent, according to projections, as voters rejected the social democratic establishment. Renzi announced Monday that he had decided to resign in the wake of the result.

“The populists won and the (Democratic Party) lost,” outgoing Democratic Party lawmaker Andrea Marcucci wrote on Facebook.

Its center-left coalition with the liberal More Europe party looks set to have only 23.5 percent, making them the third-largest group in Parliament after the center-right and the Five Star Movement.

Matthew Goodwin, visiting senior fellow at Chatham House, told VICE News the results continued the swing against traditional social democrat parties that has remade the political map across Europe.

“Center-left social democrats had another bad election and parties that are tough on immigration and wanted to clamp down on refugees have done very well alongside populists,” he said.

“Whether you look at Italy, Germany, Austria, or Brexit in Britain, what we’re seeing is profound political change driven by groups of voters who feel very anxious about the identity issues of immigration, national security and terror.”

What does it mean for Europe?

While the makeup of Italy’s next government will follow weeks of intense political horse-trading, both the Five Star Movement and the Northern League are in a strong position.

A senior Five Star official said Monday that forming a coalition without its involvement would be impossible, while the Northern League’s economics chief floated the possibility of an alliance with Five Star.


A government involving both parties would likely be Eurosceptic, opposed to European Union budget restrictions and integration, posing a further headache for the EU as it grapples with surging populist movements in its member states.

The results were cheered by leading Eurosceptic and populist forces elsewhere. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, wrote on Twitter: “The European Union is going to have a bad night.”

Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon, in Italy to monitor the fortunes of the populist and anti-immigration parties, told Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper that an alliance between the Northern League and the Five Star Movement was “the ultimate dream.”

“This election is crucial for the global populist movement,” he said, framing the opposition to illegal immigration as a question of “sovereignty” for Italians.

Cover image: Lega far right party leader Matteo Salvini laughs during a press conference held at the Lega headquarter in Milan on March 5, 2018 ahead of the Italy's general election results. (PIERO CRUCIATTI/AFP/Getty Images)