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Italy: back to the future?

PM Matteo Renzi triumphed over Beppe Grillo and Berlusconi in the last European elections. Does this reshuffling of Italian politics mean the country is back to a sort of normal?

Italian PM Matteo Renzi. Demotix/isoimages. All rights reserved. Italian PM Matteo Renzi. Demotix/isoimages. All rights reserved.

Do you remember Italy, the country that was mesmerised for twenty years by a media tycoon constantly in trouble with the law? The nation that more recently threw itself in the arms of a former comedian, clapping en masse at his violent anti-politics? The home to one of Europe's weakest centre-left parties?

Well, apparently that country ceased to exist after May 25. The European elections have deeply changed the internal political balance of many EU countries; but in Italy the shock was even greater as the final results came as a total surprise to a large part of the nation.

Not only did Berlusconi lose the battle, with the centre-right now appearing weaker, more divided and unappealing than ever. Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) also suffered the toughest setback of its short political adventure: true, many did expect the M5S would end up behind PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD). But no published poll had foreseen that the gap would be as wide as 20 percentage points. 

The Movement, galvanised in the past weeks by Grillo's self-confidence, was caught totally unprepared by these bitter results.

Grillo’s first response was somewhat admirable. He published a video where he humbly admitted the defeat and swallowed a Maalox tablet on camera, in order to “digest” the bad news. On this occasion, Grillo sounded like a father trying to cheer up his kids after they have lost a game at school; but this didn't prevent major tension from erupting within the movement. One of the M5S PR teams reportedly irritated Grillo when it heavily criticised the political communication style of the past weeks. In particular, they stressed the insufficient presence on TV (a medium Grillo despises) and an excessively punitive tone, such as when Grillo said he would institute "online people's trials" for politicians, journalists and entrepreneurs.

In a context already heated by internal polemics and cross accusations, Grillo left many supporters further disoriented when he met with Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, to talk about joining their forces in a common parliamentary group in Brussels. A part of the M5S was deeply shocked by this move towards the English leader, whom many accuse of racism and xenophobia. Grillo said Farage “is no racist” and has a “great sense of humour and irony”; he also announced that the final decision on the European alliances will be made though an online vote, as per the M5S's tradition. But the movement remains deeply divided, a sign that Grillo's leadership wasn't left completely untouched by the recent European vote.

The protest party thus finds itself in chaos after an election that seemed to offer an easy victory, with a public more disillusioned than ever with Europe and willing to send a strong signal to Brussels. 

But the grim outlook for Grillo’s political enterprise is only one of the reasons why post-election Italy is a very different place from what it was just a few weeks ago. Even more surprising than the M5S’s defeat is the Democrats’ victory. In terms of relative share of the vote, this 40.8 percent is the biggest success obtained by any left wing party in Italy's republican history. Even in the 70s, the left's heyday in the country, the Communist party never went beyond 35 percent.

Renzi thus seems on the right track to transform the Democrats into a political player with “majority aspirations” - what the PD was supposed to be from the very beginning in its founders' minds, but always failed to become. For years the PD seemed to get everything wrong, pissing off its hard-liners by pursuing a moderate agenda while failing to persuade the centrist electorate it so desperately reached for. Result: a lack of identity, weak popular attachment and the inability to win.

Renzi has managed to reverse this trend. According to a recent study by the Cattaneo Institute on electoral flows in 2013-14, there were essentially two reasons for his success: on the one hand, he almost entirely “stole” the centrist votes that had previously gone to Mario Monti's moderate “Scelta Civica” (Civic Choice); on the other, he dragged to the polling stations the party's base, those who had voted for the PD even in last year's disappointing elections. Berlusconi and Grillo paid a very high price for abstentionism. Some of their previous voters switched sides and chose the Democrats; but the most significant phenomenon was that many more didn't even bother to show. By contrast, Renzi was a great motivator for his own base.

This political exploit was accomplished with a mix of personal charisma, media savvy, post-ideological attitude and well targeted economic measures. 

The only alternatives were Grillo's aggressive populism and a centre-right discredited and divided: Italy's moderates thus flocked to this Catholic with no links to the PD's Communist wing, whose speeches cleverly (and vaguely) balance the goals of job creation and more efficient public spending. At the same time, many leftist “hard-liners” were seduced by the wind of change represented by the young PM. And, to be sure, the public's attitude towards Renzi was also mellowed by the bonus of 80 euros per month the government approved for millions of Italians, one of Renzi's most advertised measures to boost consumption.

The return of a big centrist party, the setback of populism and the decline of Berlusconi's political appeal seem to bring Italy back to the times of the First Republic. Renzi's Democratic Party, which includes the moderates at the very middle of the spectrum but excludes the far left (whose list for the European Parliament obtained 4 percent of the votes) looks like a new and slightly more progressive Christian Democracy – the Catholic party that dominated Italian politics for fifty years after WWII.

Time will tell whether this return to the future will be fruitful, and if this operation of political engineering will lead to the long-awaited economic growth and the modern recipe for social equality that the country (the world?) desperately needs.

But before speculating too much over this big question mark, it’s worth remembering that Renzi's project is still very fragile, and may well not last. The comparison between the old Christian Democracy and the new PD that came out of the European elections seems natural, but obviously today's political conditions are very different from those of 20-30 years ago. With partisanship going down everywhere in the world and the leaders' personal charisma counting for more now than ever, Italian voters swing with unprecedented volatility. This trend has probably been noticed, more than anyone else, by former prime minister Mario Monti. The latter enjoyed a 70 percent approval rate in the early days of his government; now, only two years later, his party couldn't muster above 1 percent.

Many Italian pollsters, who came under attack after completely failing to foresee the real gap between the PD and the M5S, defended themselves by underlining the existence of 7-8 millions of voters with little or no party identification, who take their pick in the very last days of the campaign in an unpredictable way – although with a certain tendency to jump on the bandwagon.

In 2013, the wind was favourable to Grillo. This year, many of the undecided eventually turned to Renzi. But of course, giving continuity to a political project, any political project, in such a liquid political arena is extremely difficult. Those who have decided to join the PD's ranks (who in the past few years had voted for Monti, but also, in some cases, for Berlusconi or Grillo) did so because of the leader, not the party.

If his goal is to create a new Christian Democracy with “majority aspirations”, Renzi will have not only to preserve his own, fragile political capital, but also to transfer to the party the affection he is currently enjoying. In times of “liquid” electorates, this will prove as big a challenge as finding a way out of the economic crisis.

Read more from our European elections coverage here.


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