The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Italy’s election results highlight struggle to govern in Europe as populist forces rise

A woman is carried away after staging a protest in a polling station in Milan where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was about to vote on Sunday.
A woman is carried away after staging a protest in a polling station in Milan where former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi was about to vote on Sunday. (Luca Bruno/AP)

BERLIN — After voters from the snowy peaks of the Alps to the sunny shores of Sicily delivered a verdict so fractured and mysterious it could take months to sort out, the banner headline Monday in the venerable daily La Stampa captured the state of a nation that’s left no one in charge: “Ungovernable Italy.”

The same can increasingly be said for vast stretches of Europe.

Across the continent, a once-durable dichotomy is dissolving. Fueled by anger over immigration, a backlash against the European Union and resentment of an out-of-touch elite, anti-establishment parties are taking votes left, right and center from the traditional power players.

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They generally aren’t winning enough support to govern. But they are claiming such a substantial share of the electorate that it has become all but impossible for the establishment to govern on its own. The result is a continent caught in a netherworld between a dying political order and a new one taking root. 

“This has been a post-ideological result, beyond the traditional left-right divide,” said Luigi Di Maio, whose populist Five Star Movement trounced its opponents to become Italy’s largest party Monday.

Now the country has plunged into uncertainty.

“The traditional structures of political alignment in Europe are breaking down,” said Josef Janning, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It started in the smaller countries. But now we see that it’s happening everywhere.” 

Even in Germany, the ultimate postwar symbol of staid political stability.

As Italians were voting Sunday, Germans were learning that they would finally have a government, a record five months after they went to the polls.

The establishment had hung on. But just barely, and with no evident enthusiasm, either from the voters or from the centrist politicians who will continue to lead the country even as the public increasingly gravitates to the margins.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in countries from east to west, north to south. It took the Dutch 208 days to form an ideologically messy four-way coalition last year after an election in which 13 parties won seats in the parliament. 

The Czechs still do not have a functioning government after voting in October yielded an unwieldy Parliament populated by anti-immigrant hard-liners; pro-market liberals; communists; and a loose alliance of libertarians, anarchists and coders known as the Pirates.

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The fragmentation of European politics takes what had been seen as one of the continent’s great strengths and turns it on its head. Unlike the United States and Britain, where winners take all, continental Europe primarily uses proportional systems in which the full spectrum of popular opinion is represented in office.

That worked fairly well when the major parties captured 80 or 90 percent of the vote, as they did in countries across Europe for decades after World War II. 

But lately, the major parties have been downsized.

In Germany, the “grand coalition” won just 53 percent of the vote — hardly grand. In Italy, neither of the traditionally dominant centrist parties cracked 20 percent. A grand coalition is not even mathematically possible.

The trend has become self-reinforcing.

As voters vent their discontent with sclerotic political systems that never seem to address their grievances, hyper-fractured election results add layers of difficulty to the process of forming governments, passing meaningful legislation or achieving the sort of consensus needed to reform the European Union.

Another blow to Europe’s establishment

The best that most leaders can do is to react and steer away from crisis.

“The age of the tall European leader is over,” Janning said. “This political climate doesn’t breed leaders. It breeds people who can manipulate the situation in such a way that things don’t derail.” 

In Italy, it’s not even clear the country will have that. Sunday’s vote appeared to knock the foundation out of the current political system — more than half of voters opted for anti-establishment, euroskeptic parties — without offering a clear alternative.

E.U. bigwigs in Brussels and a section of Italy’s elite had hoped there would be a fallback option of a super-establishment coalition of the willing. That would have entailed a tie-up between former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia, or Forward Italy, and the ruling center-left Democratic Party. That type of alliance worked in Germany after months of haggling.

But in Italy, the two mainstream parties together barely managed to exceed the vote share of the Five Star Movement — an Internet-based movement founded by a comedian that pulls voters from either end of the political spectrum and didn’t even exist a decade ago. Other votes were sprinkled across a range of far-left and far-right forces.

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“It’s a confirmation that there’s a very strong sentiment in favor of change,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at LUISS Guido Carli University in Rome. “We are entering uncharted territory because the Five Star Movement is so unusual, so unconventional. We’re going to be in for a prolonged period of uncertainty.”

Leaders of both the Five Star Movement and the far-right League party claimed victory Monday. 

In yet another bombshell, the League — whose leader once advocated segregated buses in Milan — beat its more-moderate coalition ally, Berlusconi’s party. That means that even if their center-right coalition makes the unlikely leap to power, Italy’s prime minister will be a member of the far right, a first for a Western European country since 1945.

“This is a realignment that is reshaping the way politics in European countries looks for the next 20 or 30 years,” said Piero Stanig, who teaches politics at Bocconi University.

If there was a silver lining for the establishment forces trying to hold Europe together, it was that reaction to the vote was relatively muted.

Markets wobbled but didn’t tank. Populists cheered — French far-right leader Marine Le Pen noted with satisfaction on Twitter that the European Union was “having a bad evening” — but didn’t forecast the death of the union. 

The restraint reflected a more stable footing for Europe, which is not facing economic, migration and security pressures with the same intensity of recent times.

“The situation is less volatile than three or four years ago,” said Janis Emmanouilidis, director of policy studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Center. “Back then, markets would have gone crazy. There would have been fear and panic.”

The mild reaction, Emmanouilidis said, also reflects something Europe has learned about its anti-establishment forces once they take power: Their vicious bark turns out to be a far gentler bite.

Greece learned that after electing the far-left Syriza movement in 2015, only to see it back down from a fight with the country’s creditors and adopt many of the same positions it had long vilified.

In Italy, both Five Star and the League have already softened their stance on the euro and the European Union, anticipating a shot at power and the chance to work within the system, rather than rail against it from the outside.

“Some of these movements have become demystified,” Emmanouilidis said. “They’ve become part of the establishment.” 

Birnbaum reported from Rome. Stefano Pitrelli in Rome and Luisa Beck in Berlin contributed to this report.

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