The results of the Italian elections on March 4 were both surprising and predictable. The upstart populist party, Movimento 5 Stelle, was predicted to do well, and indeed it did, gathering the highest number of votes of any single party, with 32%. When this number is added to the 17% garnered by the other populist and Euroskeptic party, Lega (Nord), it becomes clear that quite nearly half of Italian voters opted for parties the platforms of which lean decidedly populist, protectionist, xenophobic, inward-looking, and reactionary. The possibility of a M5S-Lega coalition is a frightening one, not only for Italy, but also for the entire European project and for the democratic West.
Of course, the first ones to suffer will likely be the most vulnerable, namely minority populations in Italy, including the thousands of migrants who have arrived on Italy’s shores in search of a better life, and have remained marooned there in a state of limbo, in large part because the rest of Europe has closed their doors to them. Indeed, we should not dismiss the large share of the blame that belongs to other EU-member states and the ruling Italian Democratic Party for helping to create – whether through myopic policies or general incompetence – a political atmosphere in which M5S and Lega can gain traction.
If it were only Italy to stumble down this path, it would be regrettable, but not devastating. Unfortunately, il bel paese is but the latest Western country to follow the call of populist and reactionary rhetoric. Hungary has proven to be a harbinger, with the victory of the right-wing populist Fidesz party in 2010 (and still in power). More recent cases include Britain’s brexit movement, Poland’s Law & Order parliamentary supermajority (which recently outlawed any mention of Polish responsibility or complicity in German war crimes) and Austria’s newly formed People’s Party-Freedom Party coalition government (the Freedom Party was established by a former Nazi and SS officer).
And let us not forget the US, which elected a president whose campaign was rife with racism (a Mexican-American judge cannot be fair), sexism (grab ’em by the p***y), xenophobia (build the wall!), protectionism (America first), and an open disregard for the truth (way too many examples to list here).
If there is one incredibly slender silver lining to the Italian elections, it is that Italy has perhaps (though one can never be sure) hammered the final nail in the coffin of Silvio Berlusconi’s political career. His Forza Italia party came in behind Lega with only 14% of the vote, so now Silvio has been reduced to playing Sancho Panza to Matteo Salvini’s (Lega) Don Quixote. And whenever a country makes the wise decision to vote down a philandering, dishonest, unscrupulous, tax-evading, hair-obsessed, narcissistic real estate magnate-cum-media star-cum-politician, well, it’s a good thing.
*Daniel Leisawitz is the Director of the Italian Studies Program at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.