Italy emerges from vote with rise of euroskeptic parties, but no majority

Two anti-European political groups gained ground in Italy's parliamentary election, but neither earned enough support to govern alone. The rise of these parties are examples of a surge in populist, right-wing eurosceptic forces sweeping across Europe. 

Luca Bruno/AP
Leader of the League party, Matteo Salvini, smiles before casting his ballot at a polling station in Milan, Italy, on March 4, 2018. More than 46 million Italians voted in a general election that resulted in a surge of two anti-European groups, but no majority.

Two populist and stridently anti-European Union political groups – both fierce rivals – surged in Italy's parliamentary election at the expense of the country's traditional powers, but neither gained enough support to govern alone, preliminary results showed Monday.

With no faction winning a clear majority in Sunday's vote, a hung Parliament was expected and long, fraught negotiations to form a new coalition government lay ahead.

Financial markets opened lower Monday on the news and were volatile.

"Ungovernable Italy" headlined the La Stampa newspaper.

Preliminary results released by Italy's Interior Ministry showed the center-right coalition winning about 37 percent of the parliamentary vote and the populist 5-Star Movement getting about 32 percent. The center-left coalition was far behind with 23percent support.

In an upset, the results showed the populist, right-wing and anti-immigrant League party led by Matteo Salvini surpassed the longtime anchor of the center-right, the Forza Italia party of ex-Premier Silvio Berlusconi. According to the partial results, the League captured around 18 percent of the vote, while Forza Italia had less than 14 percent.

A triumphant Mr. Salvini celebrated the victory of the center-right bloc, saying it had won the "right and the duty to govern," and announced that his party, not Berlusconi's, would lead that effort.

Salvini said he would begin sounding out any potential allies to reach the necessary parliamentary majority, but he ruled out any "strange coalitions," an apparent reference to a possible alliance with the 5-Stars.

"I am and will remain a populist," he said. He repeated his belief that joining the common euro currency was a mistake for Italy, but said financial markets shouldn't fear his party's leadership.

But the anti-establishment 5-Stars were the highest vote-getter of any single party, prompting their leader, Luigi Di Maio, to immediately assert his right to govern Italy. Mr. Di Maio noted Monday that no campaign bloc had obtained a majority and that the 5-Stars had strong showings from north to south.

"The fact that we are representative of the entire nation projects us inevitably toward the government of the country," Di Maio said at a news conference in which he took no questions. "Today, for us, it is the start of the Third Republic. And the Third will finally be the republic of citizens."

Monday's results confirmed the surging of populist, right-wing euroskeptic forces that have swept across Europe and the defeat of the two main political forces that have dominated Italian politics for decades – Forza Italia and the center-left Democrats.

"The vote has radically transformed Italy's political landscape and its repercussions will be long-lasting," said political analyst Wolfango Piccoli.

Mr. Piccoli, the co-founder of the Teneo Intelligence consultancy, said the negotiations to form a coalition government would be "prolonged and the outcome uncertain."

Piccoli said the center-right is best positioned to form a government, expected to secure 250-260 seats in the 630-member lower house. Still it will fall short of the 316 needed to control a majority.

The 5-Stars are expected to get 230 seats.

"The EU is having a bad evening," French far-right leader Marine Le Pen tweeted. British far-right, pro-Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage also congratulated the 5-Stars.

The 5-Star Movement considers itself an internet-based democracy, not a party, and views established political parties as a parasitic caste. Since its birth in 2009, the 5-Stars have attracted legions of mostly young Italians who are facing few job prospects and are fed up with Italy's traditional politicians.

The 5-Stars had a remarkably strong showing in the south, which has long been a stronghold of the center-right and Forza Italia.
During the campaign, Di Maio backed off early 5-Star policy to push for a referendum to get Italy out of the shared euro-currency group. But 5-Star members, who espouse a range of ideology-defying pro-green, anti-bank views, rail against what they say are excessive European Union  rules.

"In all these years we have been going against the current. Now we are starting to fly," marveled Davide Casaleggio of the 5-Stars.
It will now be up to President Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional scholar, to sound out the political parties to determine who has the best chances of forming a government.

The League, which only captured 4 percent of the national vote in the last general election in 2013, was particularly strong in the north, its traditional base. In Veneto, where it won 11 percent in 2013, it captured around 33 percent this time around.

Salvini, who never has held public office in Italy, fed public anger at the EU's inability to help Italy handle the hundreds of thousands of migrants who have flooded into the country after being rescued while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.

He had vowed during the campaign to expel 150,000 migrants in his first year, but said Monday that the League's strong showing was due more to its economic proposals than its anti-migrant stance. The League has proposed overturning pension reforms, introducing a flat tax and cutting bureaucracy.

"While some were doing anti-fascist marches in the absence of fascists, we were preparing the future," Salvini said.

Still the anti-migrant stance proved popular. The League surged to more than 20 percent of the vote in Macerata, where a former League candidate shot six African migrants in the election campaign. The League didn't even reach 1 percent there in 2013.

Between the League and the 5-Stars, the results showed that the two parties with the most euroskeptic platforms together topped the 50 percent needed to rule Italy. While the two are rivals, if they joined together, analysts have called that a "nightmare scenario" for the EU and the financial markets.

"No, no, no," Salvini said when asked about the possibility of governing with the 5-Stars.

The election results showed a stunning loss for the Democratic Party, the main partner in the center-left government that has ruled Italy since 2013. The Democrats received 25 percent of the vote in 2013.

Agriculture Minister Maurizio Martina called the outcome "a complete defeat."

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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