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European elections – The Italian perspective: Italian populist nationalism changes but remains in charge

European elections – The Italian perspective: Italian populist nationalism changes but remains in charge

Francesco Clementi (University of Perugia)

On Sunday 26th May 2019, Italian voters have voted to elect the new Italian representatives to the European Parliament. Before commenting on the results and their effects, three main elements can be useful to understand the peculiarity of the Italian vote.

First of all, the electoral system. In the Italian political history, there was a long tradition of political representation based on a very proportional electoral system (from 1946 to 1994), which has changed towards a majoritarian logic between 1994-2005, and has returned to almost proportional representation from 2005 to now. On this basis, since 1979, the Italian members of the European Parliament are elected with a proportional system, which was modified introducing a national threshold of 4% in the run-up of the 2009 European Parliament election.

Therefore – the second element – is the political offer based on the proportional preference vote on candidates before on lists. A very important topic, considering that the seats are defined among five large constituencies, each including 2–5 regions and each electing a fixed number of MEPs. So it is a very costly and difficult campaign because every candidate has to obtain at least 60-80.000 preferences votes to win, in a battle often more among the candidates of the same political party (insisting on the same electoral area) than candidates of different parties.

The third element is that each the European campaign election – also in Italy – is mainly viewed through the monocle of the internal, national political perspective, which is very complex now after the new tripolar political party-system emerged from 2013 and substantially confirmed in the 2018 political elections. So, this European vote was used to fix the weight of each political party, starting from the two which are in a very strange political coalition government majority: the rightwing “Five Star Movement” of Luigi Di Maio (but really leaded by the entrepreneur Davide Casaleggio and the comedian Beppe Grillo) and the rightwing “League” of Matteo Salvini, former “Northern League”.

The election results have presented a very interesting picture, which we can summarize in five points.

First, the League of Matteo Salvini has won the election, obtaining 28 seats more considering the panorama of the European 2014 elections. The League has grabbed a relevant amount of electors and votes from Forza Italia of Silvio Berlusconi and some from the Five Star Movement, a party which has lost an important amount of votes if you consider the political elections of 2018 (which is an improper analysis if you are in the field of research, but it is a very correct and proper perspective if you use the meter of the political parties).

Therefore, the effect of the political results of the Five Star Movement and the League – this is the second point – has provoked already an earthquake in the coalition of government, shaking the different political positions, potentially forecasting also a governmental crisis, however not so likely at the moment.

The third point is the result of the opposition area, mainly dominated by the centre-left Democratic Party, led by Nicola Zingaretti, current President of the Lazio Region. Comparing their results after the great clash in the last political election of 2018, the Democratic Party maintains its votes but it does not convince the Italian electors as a valid political alternative, especially also if you compare these present political results with those of Matteo Renzi for i.e. in the past European elections of 2014. The mainstream parties, I can say, have failed again to challenge populist nationalism.

The fourth point is the great sheer volatility of the Italian voters, which is a strong argument for the parties in the government coalition to pursue their politics of announcement, and very hard choices of identity politics, ethnic nationalism, and hostility to Europe.

Despite the fluctuations of the vote – the fifth point – we can underline that the Government will be in charge at least until the beginning of 2020 (where all the Italian Regions will definitely vote – the real political objective of Mr. Salvini), but now the League is the dominant driving force of the coalition government; and considering the European results Mr. Salvini will try to pursue also to change Europe from the inside, therefore increasing a situation where Italy is already every day politically more isolated, highly indebted, with a fragile society, dramatically more divided in a very intense socio-economical and territorial cleavages.

Viewing from Italy, the perspective is not so attractive.


Francesco Clementi is Full Professor in Comparative Public Law at the University of Perugia.

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