The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 5 biggest questions after Italy’s elections gave a lift to populists

Votes are counted in a polling station in Rome on Sunday at the end of Italy's election day. (Giuseppe Lami/ANSA/AP)

BERLIN — Just hours after one of Europe’s most severe political impasses ended Sunday, a new deadlock already had emerged.

In the morning, Germany’s center-left Social Democrats decided to join a government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, after five months that kept the country in limbo. But later that day, another major European Union member was thrown into uncertainty by some of the same forces that had previously stymied Germany: anti-immigration sentiments, a rise of populists and a distribution of votes that may pose a severe challenge to one of Europe’s most complicated parliamentary systems.

In contrast to Germany, Italy has no almost-invincible Merkel to guide its politics nor the same historic burden that has kept the far-right so far somewhat isolated. So, what does Sunday's vote really mean to Italy and Europe? Here are the five biggest questions.

What will it mean for Europe?

Things could have hardly turned out worse for the European Union on Sunday evening.

Italy’s new biggest and third-biggest parties are considered to be populist and unpredictable: the Five Star Movement, which came in first with over 31 percent of the vote, according to preliminary  numbers, and the far-right Northern League with more than 17 percent. (The final numbers will probably be slightly different.)

The two parties include some of Italy’s biggest skeptics of the European Union and its currency, the euro. “I think the will of the Italian people is very clear. The forces in favor of what Europe has done have been diminished,” Claudio Borghi, the Northern League's economics spokesman, told Italian broadcaster Sky TG24.

Northern League had previously declared war on the currency, with its leader, Matteo Salvini, saying in January: “I remain convinced ... that the euro under these conditions was an error. Which we will put right.”

What are the possible coalitions that could now be formed?

Italy’s two mostly centrist parties performed far below expectations on Sunday, and it’s unclear whether any coalition will be formed at all. The longer that process takes, the likelier new elections will become — but they may end up resulting in a very similar outcome.

Center-right Forza Italia, led by former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, hoped to be able to form a coalition with the far-right Northern League. But the assumption always was that Forza Italia would garner more voters than its more extreme coalition partner, allowing Berlusconi to install a Forza Italia prime minister.

Now, the power balance is reversed — with Forza Italia only gaining about 14 percent vs. the Northern League's more than 17 percent — and a coalition would result in the far right leading one of Europe’s biggest nations. The parties campaigned on the promise to boot out 600,000 migrants.

The center-left Democratic Party, led by former prime minister Matteo Renzi, was predicted to lose much of its support, but it surpassed even some of the direst predictions by receiving only about 19 percent of the vote. It may still participate in a centrist caretaker government, but teaming up with one of Italy’s more extreme parties would probably disgruntle its remaining supporters.

That might make a once-unthinkable coalition between the ideologically vague, populist Five Star Movement and the far right more likely. The Five Star Movement, however, has previously ruled out joining any coalition at all.

Italy’s election saw support for anti-establishment parties, led by the Five Star Movement, but none of the three main factions will be able to govern alone. (Video: Reuters)

Who is Luigi Di Maio of Five Star?

If the Five Star Movement were to change its stance, its 31-year-old leader Luigi Di Maio would be the most likely next Italian prime minister. But such an alliance with the far right would also go against the principles Di Maio himself laid out to my colleague Ishaan Tharoor in December in an interview in Washington.

“We have no intention of isolating Italy. We have no intention of exalting nationalistic sentiments,” Di Maio said, referring to parties on the far right in Europe. “We reject absolutely the characterization of being called a 'populist' movement.” In his profile, Tharoor went on to describe Di Maio as a university dropout who quickly rose through the ranks of the Five Star Movement:

Di Maio preaches a carefully moderate version of the party’s amorphous politics. Although he has his grievances with the European Union, for example, Di Maio does not reject it in the same way as anti-Brussels firebrands such as France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Brexiteers, or even his own putative boss, Grillo.
Di Maio, who grew up in the corruption-blighted environs of Naples, is a university dropout and has never held a job as a professional. Numerous headlines in international newspapers describe him as a “former waiter.” He rose to attention only through his activism and blogging on behalf of the Five Star Movement, a protest organization founded less than a decade ago by irreverent comedian Beppe Grillo.

What are the origins of Italians’ frustration?

Italy has shouldered much of the burden of Europe’s refugee influx in recent years, mainly because E.U. rules usually determine that refugees should be sent back to the countries through which they first entered the bloc. In many cases, due to its Mediterranean location in Europe’s far south, this was Italy, even though fewer refugees have been arriving in recent months.

At the same time, Italy has suffered under high unemployment and weak economic growth for years. Youth unemployment rates are among the worst in Europe, and skilled graduates often have to look for work abroad.

Economic despair — coupled with a perception of being abandoned by other E.U. members amid a years-long refugee influx — have provided fertile soil for Italian populists, be they on the left or right wing of the political spectrum.

Could it repeat elsewhere in Europe?

As my colleague Adam Taylor explained before Sunday’s vote, politics has always been a bit more tumultuous in Italy than in much of Europe. While Italy has had 13 prime ministers since 1988, Europe’s other big nations have had far fewer.

Yet Italy's Sunday result echoed a number of recent political trends in Europe that may become more entrenched in the future.

Voters’ anger at the establishment appears to have facilitated the rise of a new generation of political stars in a number of countries, including in France, where 40-year-old Emmanuel Macron shook up the political system. In Austria, 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz did the same, and Di Maio could potentially replicate their success in Italy.

But in Europe’s parliamentary democracies, the fragmentation of votes appears to also make it increasingly difficult to govern at all. In Germany, only a grand coalition between the center-right and the center-left prevented a minority government or new elections, even though grand coalitions are usually considered measures of last resort. Minority governments have become more common across Europe in an indication that traditional mainstream parties are losing support across the continent.

In Italy, a country with a history of political deadlocks, the repercussions of such impasse could now emerge in full force.

More on WorldViews: 

China cuts reference to Hong Kong’s people governing themselves in key report

Italy’s election is another blow to the European establishment

In a jokey speech, Trump praised China’s Xi for moving to end term limits, saying, ‘Maybe we’ll give that a shot someday’