16 March 2018
The chaos of Italy's election is the result of long-standing trends — and a preview of what's to come in Europe.
Matthew Goodwin

Professor Matthew Goodwin

Visiting Senior Fellow, Europe Programme

2018-03-16-Salvini.jpg

Matteo Salvini, leader of Lega. Photo: Getty Images.
Matteo Salvini, leader of Lega. Photo: Getty Images.

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Are we at nearing the end of a new period of political volatility in Europe, or are we closer to the beginning? The recent election in Italy offers important — and unnerving — clues.

On one level, you might argue that the Italian election was classic Italian politics: a festa of successful insurgent outsiders, overturned insiders and anti-establishment populism that is entirely in keeping with a national tradition of general political chaos. But on another level, those with an eye on the deeper currents will rightly see the events in Italy as a symptom of more profound changes that are sweeping through Europe’s creaking party systems, and that still have a long way to run.

Three trends are particularly important. One of the most significant developments in Italy was the anointment of Matteo Salvini and the national populist party Lega as the new rulers of the right after they replaced Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia. Lega is not a new party. Founded in 1991 as Lega Nord, the 'North League' of regionalist separatists, it has long campaigned for an autonomous 'Padania' in the north while occasionally indulging in anti-immigration rhetoric. It has also joined governing coalitions on several previous occasions.

But more recently, its appeal has spread farther south while the 45-year-old Salvini has turned up the volume on cultural issues, emulating other national populists like Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen in France and Heinz-Christian Strache in Austria by warning about the perceived threat from Islam in Europe, which many link to the refugee crisis. Salvini will no doubt now look to cement this emerging alliance, having already since the election praised Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who in turn is cultivating strong links with his Polish and Austrian counterparts.

Clearly, Italy’s right turn should not be viewed in isolation. But it is also true that observers are still glossing over the extent and pace at which this rightward drift is playing out across Europe’s party systems. This was a long time coming and is not just rooted in the post-2008 financial crisis, although that helped. One recent study, based on analysis of more than 500 party manifestoes from nearly 70 parties in 17 of Europe’s democracies, found that since 1980 Europe as a whole has drifted sharply to the right, as mainstream parties swapped liberal policies for more authoritarian views.

The extent of this drift is reflected in the fact that by 2015, the mean position of center-left parties on questions of immigration and integration was basically where national populists had been in the 1980s. Later this year, attention will turn to an election in Sweden, where social democrats have announced a new strategy to target national populist voters by talking tough on immigration. Whether such a strategy can work remains to be seen, but what is clear is that Europe’s rightward drift has coincided with the general collapse of social democracy, which brings us to the second key trend.

In Italy, the center-left Partito Democratico (PD) slumped below 20 per cent of the vote for the first time since it was formed. Some trace this to factors that are unique to Italy, but it should instead be seen as further evidence of the fact that social democracy across Europe is in the midst of a full-blown crisis. In the past year alone, social democratic parties have slumped to single digits in France, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, while social democrats in Germany polled their lowest vote share since 1933, and their counterparts in Austria fell to their lowest number of seats in the post-war era.

Increasingly, the question is not whether social democrats can return to being electorally competitive but whether, over the long haul, they can remain electorally relevant. The PD’s defeat in Italy means that there are now fewer than half a dozen left-wing parties in power across the entire European Union area, whereas in 2000 there were 15.

This too was a long time coming, and there are also good reasons to expect things to get even worse for social democrats in the future. It has now been more than 30 years since Adam Przeworski published Capitalism and Social Democracy, in which he set out the core dilemma that has faced them ever since: 'To be effective in elections they have to seek allies who would join workers under the socialist banner, yet at the same time they erode exactly that ideology which is the source of their strength among workers. They cannot remain a party of workers alone and yet they can never cease to be a workers’ party.'

Except, you might argue, social democrats today are ceasing to be a workers’ party, while it is not clear whether they can build a new coalition to compensate for those losses. Since the 1980s, the fundamental dilemma that Przeworski identified has been exacerbated by the arrival in Europe (and also the United States) of a potent value divide between middle-class cultural liberals and socially conservative or authoritarian workers, which is replacing the old left-right divide. This has squeezed the center-left further, with newly salient issues like immigration, European integration and the refugee crisis cutting directly across its electorate.

While radical left insurgents like Spain’s Podemos, Die Linke in Germany and Britain’s Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn have appealed to highly educated middle-class liberals, national populists have made a concerted play for workers. Even before the financial crisis unfolded, one study found that workers were twice as likely as the middle class to support national populists in Austria, three times as likely in Belgium and France, and four times as likely in Norway. Though workers made up half of these electorates, they delivered around two-thirds of the support for national populists. Europe celebrated the election of Emmanuel Macron in France, but workers were the only group to give Marine Le Pen majority support.

These voters prioritize culture over class interest. This will further feed Europe’s rightward drift and create more room for populist outsiders. The European Parliament elections in not-so-distant 2019 will likely see a surge of support for these challengers, especially those on the right given that immigration, Islam and the refugee crisis are dominating the agenda. According to a pan-European survey, the Eurobarometer, the two most important issues to people across the continent are immigration and terrorism.

This brings us to the third key trend. In Italy, another striking development was a startling result for the populist Movimento 5 Stelle, or Five Star Movement, which though only founded (by a comedian) in 2009 won the most votes, polling especially well among the young and unemployed, and in the more impoverished south. The sudden ascendancy of Movimento 5 Stelle — like Macron in France, the Alternative for Germany, the Sweden Democrats and other new challengers — reflects another key trend: rising and historically unprecedented volatility.

We are now witnessing historic change. The traditional mainstream is under pressure like never before, while new challengers are emerging. Between 2004 and 2015, the mean share of the vote going to parties in the mainstream slumped by 14 points to 72 per cent, while the share going to new parties, whether on the populist left or right, more than doubled to 23 per cent. These are byproducts of the fact that Europe’s party systems are more volatile than ever before, with more people switching their votes from one election to the next and no longer displaying the strong partisan allegiances that characterized the silent generation and baby boomers.

This downward trend in the proportion of votes for the mainstream and the upward swing in the proportion going to new parties reflects a process of rising volatility that began in the 1970s, accelerated during the 1990s and was then put on steroids during the Great Recession. One recent study concludes that volatility in Europe has now reached levels that have not been seen at any other point since the emergence of mass democracy, including even the interwar years that saw the rise of new communist and fascist parties.

With a much greater willingness on the part of citizens to switch their support from one election cycle to the next, this explains why a party like Movimento 5 Stelle can be formed and win the popular vote in a national election within a decade. Given that this was a long time coming, you would be hard-pressed today to find many political scientists who would predict the return of stability and stable mainstream alliances.

For these three reasons, while some observers will no doubt find it tempting to explain away the result in Italy as a byproduct of national idiosyncrasies, they would be wise to look below the surface. When you do, one thing becomes abundantly clear. Europe’s party systems, like Italy’s, will not calm down anytime soon.

This article was originally published by Foreign Policy.

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