Italy's vote: what's really behind the surge in support for populist parties

No clear winner has emerged from Sunday's election. The vote drove home the message that migration has become a dominant issue in Western politics, even if it's not the root cause of popular discontent. A biweekly column on patterns in diplomacy.

Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy's Five Star Movement, speaks to reporters as he leaves home in Rome on March 5, the day after general elections. Preliminary results show the center-right coalition winning about 37 percent of the parliamentary vote and the Five Star Movement getting about 31 percent, with the center-left coalition far behind with 23 percent.

The voters of Italy have not so much spoken as snarled and shouted.

While Sunday’s election handed no party a clear mandate to govern, it drove home a message with sobering implications for the rest of Europe and beyond: the issue of immigrants and refugees, weaponized politically by populist firebrands promising to seal off borders and “reclaim” their countries’ true identity, has become a dominant force in Western politics.

A five-month political stalemate in Germany – finally resolved only as the Italians were voting – has provided further evidence. So has campaigning in Hungary, which goes to the polls next month. The two earliest and loudest wake-up calls – Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s election victory in America – were not outliers.

This marks a dramatic turnaround from a decade ago, when the political and economic winds were blowing toward greater international coordination and integration. It poses a serious challenge to political leaders who still believe in a more open, interconnected, and collegial world order. They’ve been thrown squarely on the defensive. So, too, have key institutions built since World War ll to promote and protect multinational cooperation: bodies like the European Union, the World Trade Organization, or the United Nations. With a new tide of nationalism taking hold, it could become ever harder to make the case for a shared interest in areas such as international trade, or the protection and resettlement of vulnerable refugees.

The immediate explanation for the altered climate, at least in Europe, is clear. Especially since a major surge in 2015, unprecedented numbers of refugees have been arriving, some 1.3 million in that year alone. Most have fled bloodshed and chaos in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan, but also, in the case of Italy, have traveled from Africa, through Libya and across the Mediterranean, often at the risk of their lives. More than 620,000 have reached Italy in the past several years.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded by welcoming even greater numbers, and proposing an arrangement for EU countries to share the burden, she won plaudits internationally for statesmanship. When Germans voted in September of last year, however, they punished her party and rewarded the fiercely anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany party. That ushered in months of coalition talks before she finally managed to form a new government.

Immigration, or globalization?

Yet the surge of refugees was a catalyst, not the root cause, of the surge of populist parties once relegated to the fringes. The shift toward economic globalization and the quickening pace of technological innovation mattered most. Many of Europe’s old industrial and manufacturing businesses were reshaped or replaced in the process. Many of those who had worked in them found themselves faced with the challenge of retraining, competing for any other work they could find, or relying on government support.

In some cases, immigration did have an effect. In Britain, the arrival of hundreds of thousands of workers from new EU member states in Eastern Europe helped sway the Brexit vote. But in Britain, elsewhere in Europe, and now in Italy, the main reason for the advance of populist, anti-immigrant parties has been a more general anger in economically deprived areas – a feeling of having been cut loose by an increasingly borderless, technologically driven world economy. That feeling deepened after the economic crash of 2007-2008, and immigration and asylum gave populist politicians a powerful issue on which to focus the anger of those who felt left behind.

Though Italy’s election results  produced no definitive sign of who will form the next government, there was a clear loser: the center-left Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. On his watch, the economy did begin to recover from the crash of 2008. But slowly. Living standards are only now returning to where they were at the dawn of the century. More than one-third of young Italians are unemployed.

The two main winners were the Five Star Movement, founded by a former comedian and led by a 31-year-old newcomer more in the mold of Bernie Sanders than Donald Trump; and The League: neo-Fascist, angrily anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Both share a kick-out-the-old-guard populism, and a message aimed at the economically dispossessed. Five Star leaders, too, have said Italy must hold firm against welcoming more refugees.

Europe’s more centrist, internationally minded politicians realize they have to find a way to reconnect with voters flocking to the anti-immigration, nationalist banner. In Germany, Merkel has been sounding sterner on immigration. In France, while President Emmanuel Macron takes a liberal line on a range of issues, he has adopted a tougher position on refugees and asylum-seekers.

But their longer-term challenge lies in broadening the debate and conveying a message that seems highly unlikely to find an audience in the current climate. The message: that even without the pressures of immigrants or refugees, the forward march of technological invention and innovation – is irreversible. The intricate international supply chain characterizing many businesses in Western countries could, in theory, be unwound. But even that would risk huge dislocations which, as President Trump found after last week’s announcement he intends to impose new steel and aluminum tariffs, would impact not just rivals but partners and allies.

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