Italy anti-establishment parties make big gains in election

Italy anti-establishment parties make big gains in election

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Italian voters have delivered a bruising rebuke to the country’s political establishment, as both the populist Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant, Eurosceptic Northern League were poised to make sweeping gains in the general election.

Early results suggested a hung parliament and a period of protracted and tense negotiations shepherded by Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, for the formation of a new government.

Five Star was one of the big winners from the election, as it appeared on course to be Italy’s strongest single party with 32 per cent of the vote. Although it cannot form a government unless it strikes an alliance with other parties, it has positioned itself as a dominant force in Italian politics.

“If these figures are confirmed it would be historic and extraordinary, Five Star will be the pillar of the next legislature,” said Alfonso Bonafede, a Five Star lawmaker.

With 74 per cent of the vote counted, the centre-right coalition fronted by Silvio Berlusconi, the 81-year-old media mogul and former prime minister, was on 37 per cent of the vote, but remained shy of an absolute majority of seats. 

The big surprise was the surge in support for the Northern League, led by the 44-year-old rightwing nationalist leader Matteo Salvini, which beat Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, earning 18 per cent of the vote and becoming the main conservative party in Italy. “My first words: THANK YOU,” Mr Salvini tweeted early on Monday.

Meanwhile, the ruling centre-left Democratic party led by Matteo Renzi suffered a dramatic implosion, falling to 19 per cent, according to projections, in a result that will almost certainly prompt calls for Mr Renzi’s resignation. “It’s clear that this was a very evident and a very clear defeat,” said Maurizio Martina, the vice-secretary of the PD.

In reaction to the election results, Italy’s main stock index fell and Investors moved out of its bonds, lifting their yields. The FTSE Mib index in Milan fell 0.9 per cent in morning trade, bucking a trend for gains on wider European bourses. The yield on 10-year Italian government bonds rose 6.1 basis point to 2101 per cent, a five-session high.

Shares in Mediaset, a broadcaster controlled by Mr Berlusconi’s family, fell 5 per cent. Italian banks were also hit hard with UniCredit down 2.9 per cent and Intesa falling 2.2 per cent.

For the past five years, Italy has been governed by three different centre-left prime ministers, who were able to steer the country out of the financial crisis and deep recession that followed. But the economic recovery was sluggish and intangible to many Italians — leading to widespread dissatisfaction with the political elite and a desire for a profound jolt. 

At the same time, authorities have struggled to deal with an influx of more than 620,000 migrants from Africa and the Middle East that were rescued in the Mediterranean Sea and brought to Italian shores — a crisis that has fed anxiety among many voters. Both Five Star and the Northern League blamed Italy’s domestic political establishment — and Italy’s loss of sovereignty to the EU — for the struggles of middle-class families.

The prospect of Italy entering a bout of deep political uncertainty and instability could be unnerving to the EU just as it is trying to launch an integration push under French President Emmanuel Macron and the newly minted grand coalition in Germany.

Rightwing nationalist leader Matteo Salvini. A surge in support for the Northern League has been a big surprise © AFP

Italy is one of the founding members of the bloc and traditionally one of its biggest supporters, with strong public backing. But Euroscepticism has been spreading in recent years because of unhappiness with EU budgetary constraints, regulatory policies and its handling of the migrant crisis.

According to the projections, more than 50 per cent of Italian voters picked parties that have heavily criticised the EU in recent years. Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s National Front, cheered the Italian result: “The European Union is going to have a bad night,” she wrote on Twitter.

Five Star, which was founded in 2009 by burly comedian Beppe Grillo and is now led by Luigi Di Maio, a 31-year-old Neapolitan, has been most able to channel Italian discontent with its political elite. With a strong base in southern Italy and among younger voters, it has been the most popular political party since early 2017.

Meanwhile, the Democratic party (PD), led by Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister, had been trying to limit the political damage by shoring up support in its central Italy heartland. The best it was hoping for was to remain strong enough to see Paolo Gentiloni, the current prime minister, reappointed to a job as the leader of a grand coalition with Mr Berlusconi, but that now seems off the cards.

Mr Berlusconi underperformed expectations as well, a sign that his attempt to cast himself as a moderate and reassuring grandfatherly figure to the nation could only go so far in the age of populism. 

At a polling station in Talenti, a middle-class neighbourhood of north-eastern Rome, Antonella La Vecchia, a high school teacher, had backed Five Star, offering a glimpse of the thinking behind many of its supporters. “I think it’s the only solution we have to shake the system,” she said. “Even if they haven’t been great locally, administrating Rome, I think they are something new and we should give them a chance to govern the country for the first time.”

Italian election provisional results

Guido Pasquinacci, a pensioner, was backing the far-right Brothers of Italy. “Immigration and Europe are not for Italy,” he said. “We are desperate. Europe is slapping us in the face and here we are overwhelmed by migrants. We don’t feel safe any more.”

But Walter Mazzoni, another pensioner, had backed the PD. “Matteo Renzi is the only serious politician we have. What the rightwing parties say — Italians first — does leave a mark, especially for all those Italians who are struggling and are under the poverty threshold. But Renzi’s government has tried to change things,” he said.


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