In the first European legislative election of 2018, the wave of National Populist (NatPop) parties taking over Europe—described by Dutch representative Geert Wilders as a “Patriot Spring”—has just scored another massive victory.
The battlefield upon which this latest win occurred? Italy. Going into this election, the polling showed that the ruling left-wing coalition was in serious trouble. The major left-wing party, the Democratic Party (PD), had suffered from the defeat of a nationwide constitutional referendum back in 2016; the referendum, championed by then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, would have consolidated power into the two legislative chambers—the lower chamber, Chamber of Deputies, and the upper chamber, the Senate—and made the government significantly more powerful.
The referendum, which quickly became seen as a referendum on Renzi and the leadership of the PD, was rejected by 59 percent of the voters. Although Renzi resigned a disgrace, voters in the PD’s primary election ultimately voted him right back in as party leader in 2017.
Going into these elections, the left-wing coalition consisted of six different parties; but four of the six parties regularly polled at less than 1 percent, leaving the PD (averaging in the low 20’s) and the pro-EU party “More Europe” (E+, averaging 2 percent to 3 percent) to carry the weight of the entire coalition.
All of this played into the hands of the right-wing coalition, consisting of four parties that individually polled lower than the PD, but when combined together far outnumbered the overall left-wing coalition. The main party of this bloc is the center-right “Forza Italia” (FI), led by controversial former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi (averaging from 16 percent to 18 percent). Other parties in this bloc included the right-wing “Brothers of Italy” (FdI, averaging 5 percent or so), which has been falsely accused by CNN of being a “neo-fascist” party, and the center-right “Us with Italy” (NcI, averaging from 1 percent to 3 percent).
But the most attention-grabbing member of the right-wing coalition was “La Lega” (the League), the traditional NatPop party that is firmly nationalist, populist, anti-immigration, and Eurosceptic (polling around 13 percent to 15 percent). Lega was formerly known as Lega Nord (the Northern League) due to primarily being a regional party restricted to the North, and originally was conceived as a northern separatist party. But under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party shed its image as a strictly northern party and instead went national, carrying with it the more commonly-seen NatPop rhetoric of being anti-immigration, nationalist, and anti-EU. Salvini frequently channeled U.S. President Donald Trump, whom he met at a rally in Philadelphia in April 2016.
And at the virtual center of this entire election is the Five Star Movement (M5S), perhaps the single largest example in all of Europe of a Centrist Populist (CenPop) party. While the party does hold similar traits to most NatPop parties (it is anti-EU, strict on immigration, and anti-establishment), it is not explicitly nationalist; it also holds some more left-wing views as well, including environmentalism and support for direct democracy. Founded less than a decade ago in 2009, the party has been led by comedian and former actor Beppe Grillo, another Trump-esque figure who has never held elected office before. But going into this particular election, Grillo selected 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio to be the party’s candidate for Prime Minister, giving the party a more “traditional” candidate for the top spot while Grillo continued to act in an unofficial capacity as party leader.
Thus, the polling averages going into the election settled on this general consensus: M5S was widely predicted to become the largest single party (polling in the mid- to high-20’s), but would fall short of a majority due to refusing to form a coalition with any other parties. While the PD was expected to become the second-largest single party, the combined strength of the three major right-wing parties (FI, La Lega, and FdI) would see the right-wing coalition become the largest overall bloc in both houses of the legislature, while also still falling short of a majority. So all in all, the expectations were of a decent victory for the Italian right, and a surge for the CenPop party that even surpassed its 2013 result.
Instead, what actually occurred was yet another complete victory for the anti-establishment parties and the latest devastating defeat for the major left-wing parties, even surpassing polling expectations and with some serious upsets on both sides of the aisle.
First, the M5S greatly exceeded expectations; instead of a vote share in the high-20’s, it received approximately 31 percent of the vote in the Senate and 32 percent in the Chamber of Deputies, putting it far ahead of any other single party.
Second, the PD horribly underperformed even the lowest polling expectations, falling below the expected minimum of 20 percent and instead receiving about 19 percent in both chambers. Combined with the PD’s other left-wing partners performing about as badly as expected, this means that the entirety of the left-wing coalition combined—all six parties—is still smaller than the M5S; one single party outranked all six of the major left-wing parties combined, making the M5S the second-largest “coalition” overall.
Third, and perhaps most shockingly: although the right-wing coalition, as expected, wound up as the largest bloc overall (and even matched its polling expectations of around 37 percent), La Lega greatly exceeded its polling numbers. Instead of FI being the largest right-wing party and La Lega in a close second, the NatPop party instead pulled into a solid first in the overall right-wing bloc, raking in about 18 percent of the vote in both chambers and falling just behind the PD. The center-right party, conversely, received about 14 percent, while the FdI and NcI performed as expected. This means that, if the right-wing coalition is given the opportunity to form the new government, then it very well could be the firmly right-wing Salvini who becomes the next Prime Minister, instead of Berlusconi’s center-right choice, European Parliament President Antonio Tajani.
The British newspaper Daily Express described the result as a “major blow to [the] EU,” which would make the UK itself the only major European country “where the hard-left is thriving.” Indeed, following in the same trend as the French elections, the German elections, the Austrian elections, and the Czech elections, the result is the absolute worst performance ever for the country’s major left-wing party, and a better-than-expected result for the right-wing, anti-establishment, and anti-EU forces.
The one and only uncertainty remaining is the obvious issue of none of the parties or coalitions gaining an absolute majority in either chamber. The Chamber of Deputies consists of 630 seats (thus requiring 316 for a majority) while the Senate holds 315 seats (meaning 158 is required for a majority). Although the previous government consisted of another “grand coalition” of the center-right and center-left, such a possibility looks extremely unlikely due to the poor performance of the left, as well as the dramatic rightward shift of the right.
Leading up to the election, M5S had previously repeatedly insisted that they would not form a coalition with any other parties. But upon the CenPop party’s stunning victory, party spokesman Alfonso Bonafede declared that the M5S would be “a pillar of the legislature.” Early in the morning of March 5, party leader Luigi Di Maio declared that the M5S would leave the door open for negotiations with other parties, which has instantly raised the possibility of a firmly anti-EU and anti-immigration coalition. A coalition between the M5S and La Lega would be just shy of 50 percent in both chambers, while a coalition between the M5S, La Lega, and Brothers of Italy would make a majority of about 54 percent. This was described by a BBC correspondent as “the EU’s nightmare result.”
But even beyond the performance of the NatPop and CenPop parties, there is a clear broader trend taking place in the great nation of Italy. For decades now, the never-ending leftist rhetoric of “Nazis” and “fascists” to demonize their political opponents has rang truer in Italy than most other places, for obvious reasons. Yet now, at the crossroads of another major geopolitical shift in Europe, Italy—like many Eastern European countries—is coming to terms with the new rising menace in the continent: globalism and destruction of national sovereignty, perpetuated by the insidious European Union and the flood of hundreds of thousands of Islamic migrants.
In the aftermath of the Christmas 2016 truck attack in Berlin, it was revealed that the perpetrator had been trained by the Islamic State, and entered the EU through Italy before coming into Germany. After killing 11 and injuring over 50 more, he then fled back to Italy, where he was ultimately gunned down by police. The revelation of Italy’s indirect role, as a sort of gateway for migrants and terrorists across the Mediterranean, led to a widespread sense of Italian guilt over the attack.
But unlike other attacks that occur and are quickly swept under the rug by pro-migration EU officials, this one ultimately was not in vain. The Italian people at large finally stood up and fought back against the slings and arrows of “bigot,” “racist,” “xenophobe,” “Islamophobe,” and all the usual petty buzzwords, determined to focus more on the current danger than reconciling the ills of the past. Again, roughly 54 percent of the Italian electorate voted for anti-EU and anti-immigration parties. A plurality, 37 percent, voted for right-wing parties. And nearly 70 percent voted for non-left-wing parties overall, in a crushing rebuke of the pro-EU, pro-migrant leadership of the PD, and one of the biggest blows yet for the EU as a whole.
The media has repeatedly tried to declare that the Patriot Spring peaked with Brexit and President Trump. Throughout 2017, they pointed to the “losses” of the Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, the Dutch Party for Freedom (led by Geert Wilders), and the German party Alternative for Deutschland, as supposed “proof” that the momentum had faded. In doing so, they ignored the historic collapses of all the major left-wing parties in those same elections, and thus were slammed even harder when NatPop forces came roaring back in Austria, the Czech Republic, and now Italy.
The nationalist, populist, right-wing wave that has already taken Eastern Europe has now spread to Central Europe. It never stopped, and will not stop. The left in Europe is collapsing, and the establishment right is being forced to either shift further to the right or align with the NatPop parties in order to avoid being similarly trampled. The tsunami started by Nigel Farage and Donald Trump is only going to continue, and Europe could very well still save itself before it is too late.