Italian Voters Decide to Give Populism a Chance

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By now we know who won Italy’s election on March 4: protest parties, especially the 5-Star Movement and the League (formerly the Northern League), which between them won half the vote. We also know who lost: the incumbent center-left Democratic Party of former Prime Minister

Matteo Renzi,

which secured only 19% of the vote. But it will take years to understand what this election and others like it in Europe really mean.

A few early guesses come to mind. Most important, it’s not at all clear that voters have fully embraced the specific policy ideas of the antiestablishment parties. Rather, we’re witnessing the consequence of mainstream parties’ failures on immigration, the economy and democratic renewal in Europe.

Migration is the key to understanding the Italian campaign. More than 600,000 migrants and asylum seekers have entered Italy illegally since 2014. Many Italians feel overwhelmed by this influx. According to an international Ipsos poll conducted in July 2017, 66% of Italians thought that there were too many immigrants in their country, the second highest percentage of the 25 countries surveyed. The center-left government, led by the Democratic Party, overlooked these anxieties and tried to cover up the gravity of the problem. In September 2016—at the peak of the migration crisis, with thousands of foreigners entering Italy from Libya—then-Prime Minister Renzi declared: “There is no emergency. There are some people.”

Rather than suppressing hostility toward the government’s handling of this crisis, such statements fueled the opposition—and hostility to migrants. Both the League and 5-Star responded to this. The founder of the 5-Star movement,

Beppe Grillo,

has called for the deportation of all illegal migrants, and the League made fighting against migration its prime issue. Voters supported the only major parties promising to take back control of the national borders and to prioritize law and order.

As for the economy, Italy still has not fully recovered from a string of recessions that began in 2011, and double-digit unemployment and lackluster growth are undermining society. The Democrats claimed their economic management was finally working. Instead they should have admitted the obvious truth and offered a clear strategy to improve growth.

Finally, this election was about Italian democracy itself. Endemic corruption, patronage and what seems like excessive political opportunism have undermined faith in government and created a democratic crisis. Mr. Renzi’s cosmetic institutional reforms, especially his proposed constitutional reform of the Senate, were interpreted by many voters as diversionary tactics to avoid making any serious change.

By putting forward a team of young, nonprofessional politicians, the 5-Star Movement offered itself as the alternative. The party’s youth and inexperience—its leader,

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Luigi Di Maio,

is 31—has become a selling point for voters. The electoral results in the city of Rome confirm these trends. Despite the perceived amateurism of the local administration run by the 5-Star Movement, the party increased its share of votes compared with the last general election. Voters prefer an inexperienced but honest administration to the old political parties.

All of these explanations for the insurgents’ success are domestic. It’s tempting to view Euroskepticism as the dominant force in European politics, following Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the election of Euroskeptic politicians or parties in recent years in Poland and Hungary. If that movement had come to the EU’s heartland—Italy was one of the six original members—it would be worrying.

There’s a message for Brussels in this election outcome, but not a simplistic anti-EU one. Mr. Di Maio won partly because his attitude toward the European project shifted during the campaign, from stiff hostility to a more balanced call for change. His party and the League both dialed back their earlier calls for a referendum on leaving the euro or the EU.

Brussels should not consider the Italian vote as an act of hostility but rather as a wake-up call. Italian voters want Europe to defend external borders and to deport illegal migrants. They want to curb the powers of technocratic institutions such as the European Commission, and they want a more assertive stance against a German-led European Union. Brussels should take that message seriously.

A start, both for Italy’s own political establishment and for Brussels, is to allow 5-Star to try to form a government. They won the election, with the largest vote share of any single party. Italian President

Sergio Mattarella,

whose largely ceremonial role includes calling on a party or coalition to form a government, should give Mr. Di Maio a mandate. Doing so will force 5-Star to stand or fall on its own competence, and voters will punish failure at the ballot box.

Italy’s other parties may be tempted to freeze out 5-Star by forming some other coalition first, and Brussels might be tempted to treat a 5-Star government as a pariah in the EU’s councils, for fear that handing the movement power would inflame a political crisis in Europe. On the contrary, any attempt to exclude the winners of the election from government would weaken the already fragile democratic foundations of the country and could lead to an institutional crisis. To save both Italian democracy and the EU, give 5-Star a chance.

Mr. Ronchi is a lecturer at Sciences Po in Paris.



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