Preliminary results suggest Italy’s general election has produced a hung parliament and a triumph for the two parties EU leaders feared the most: the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the anti-immigrant, fiercely Eurosceptic Lega party.
Riding a wave of popular anger over persistently high unemployment, recurrent corruption scandals and the influx of migrants on Italy’s southern shores, the Five-Star Movement and the Lega emerged as the big winners of a night that delivered yet another crushing rebuke of mainstream parties.
With 75% of ballots counted, the Five-Star Movement led by 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio was easily the biggest single party. It is credited with a whopping 32% of the vote, making it an unavoidable force in the intense horsetrading that will follow this inconclusive vote.
Di Maio, whose movement has always refused any alliance with Italy's "corrupt" parties, said Five-Star now has a "responsibility" to form a government. To that end, he said he was "open to discussion with all political actors."
The only camp that had harboured genuine hopes of winning a majority, the centre-right coalition that includes Lega and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, fell well short of that target. But while it was a bad night for Berlusconi, whose party is credited with just 14%, the Lega was celebrating a record 18% of the vote – easily its best ever score.
Between them, Five-Star and the Lega accounted for half of all votes cast, an astonishing result that raises the possibility of an "anti-system" post-election pact between the two. That is a scenario EU leaders were desperate to avoid – and one Steve Bannon, the man who masterminded Donald Trump’s anti-establishment pitch, has described as “the ultimate dream”.
"The March 4 vote yielded a result that Europe was afraid of and Italy perhaps did not expect on this scale," columnist Marcello Sorgi wrote in La Stampa daily on Monday. "Defeated everywhere else in Europe, populism won here,” he added. “Either it can govern or it will block the system."
In many ways, Sunday’s result raises more questions than it answers, leaving no easy path ahead for the formation of a government. But it has removed at least two options that had been described as the EU’s preferred outcomes.
The first was a German-style “grand coalition” of mainstream parties from the centre-left and the centre-right, designed to keep Five-Star and the far right out of government. It would have required a strong showing by the incumbent Democratic Party and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, neither of which happened.
The centre-left Democratic Party, led by former premier Matteo Renzi, had been praised by EU leaders for its economic reforms and its handling of the migrant crisis. But in the current climate of defiance, support from Europe was no blessing for Renzi’s party, which saw its share of the vote tumble to 19%, down from a high of 40% in European elections four years ago.
'A seismic shift in Italy's political landscape'
The EU’s second preferred outcome was a centre-right majority dominated by Berlusconi. Glossing over the many scandals that forced his exit in 2011, European conservatives had endorsed the 81-year-old Berlusconi ahead of the election, seeing him as a moderate who could keep the Lega in check. Instead, Sunday’s vote showed that the Lega is now very much the dominant force on the right.
L’Espresso, a centre-left weekly, said Berlusconi, “the old man on his last lap”, along with Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, were the election’s “two catastrophic losers”. Illustrating Berlusconi’s defeat, the former tycoon-prime minister was ambushed at the polling station by a topless woman from the Femen activist group who had "Berlusconi, you have expired" scrawled across her torso.
A Five-Star-Lega tie-up?
As the scale of the mainstream parties’ defeat became apparent, Eurosceptics across the continent tweeted jubilantly.
Brexit firebrand Nigel Farage congratulated the Five-Star Movement, his allies in the European Parliament, "for topping the poll" as Italy's biggest single party. "The European Union is going to have a bad night," added Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's far-right National Front and a close ally of Lega leader Matteo Salvini.
In the days to come, EU leaders will be fretting over the possibility that the parties might draw closer. The Lega is fiercely Eurosceptic and wants to quit the euro. The Five-Star Movement has expressed similar views in the past, though it now says the time to quit the single currency has passed.
Video: What is Italy's Five Star Movement?
Projected results would give such an alliance 355 seats in the 630-seat lower house of parliament and 168 seats in the 315-seat Senate – a comfortable majority in both chambers.
But it would be a very hard sell for Five-Star. The party’s anti-establishment pitch and its refusal to form coalitions is the essence of the movement founded nine years ago by firebrand comedian Beppe Grillo. Many of its voters come from the left and would be appalled at the idea of teaming up with an increasingly far-right party.
On Monday, the Lega’s Salvini claimed the “right and duty” to form a government of the centre-right, rejecting a “strange” alliance with the Five-Star Movement. But his economy chief, Claudio Borghi, suggested the two parties could reach an understanding on certain issues, such as cancelling a constitutional requirement to balance the budget.
One thing appears almost certain: the anti-establishment party is too big to be by-passed in the coming talks. As the first exit polls came in late on Sunday, Five-Star promptly declared it would be the “pillar” of the next legislature. That will necessarily involve some form of compromise from a movement that has categorically refused to engage in pre-election coalitions.
But Five-Star has made it clear it plans to dictate the terms of future talks. As Alessandro Di Battista, its most prominent figure after Di Maio, put it: "Everyone is going to have to come and speak to us". Not the other way round.