Italy left in limbo after populist surge in election

A surge for populist and far-right parties in Italy's general election left the country in political deadlock on Monday with a hung parliament likely after a campaign dominated by anger against immigration.

Italy left in limbo after populist surge in election
Journalists wait in the League's press room after exit polls. Photo: Piero Cruciatti/AFP

With the majority of ballots from Sunday's vote counted, the eurosceptic League led by Matteo Salvini was leading the dominant right-wing coalition with 37 percent of the vote.

Salvini, who has promised to shut down Roma camps, deport hundreds of thousands of migrants and tackle the “danger” of Islam, said Monday he had the “right and duty” to govern Italy.

The League is closing in on 18 percent, overtaking the pre-election coalition leader and media mogul Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia (Go Italy) party, which has collapsed to 14 percent.

“Italians have chosen to take back control of the country from the insecurity and precariousness put in place by [centre-left Democratic Party leader Matteo] Renzi,” Salvini told a press conference.

LIVE BLOG: Italy faces political uncertainty after populist surge in election

LIVE: Italy faces political uncertainty after populist surge in electionPhoto:Andreas Solaro/AFP

However, much depends on the anti-establishment  Five Star Movement (M5S), which has drawn support from Italians fed up with traditional parties and a lack of economic opportunity and finished second with 32 percent.

“Everything will change,” read the front page of Il Fatto Quotidiano, which like the M5S has railed against what it sees as the “corrupt” old parties.

But much depends what leader Luigi Di Maio does next.

“It's a great day, despite the rain,” said Di Maio to reporters on Monday morning. “Indescribable.”

Five Star League?

According to polling company YouTrend, the M5S is on for 231 seats in the lower house Chamber of Deputies and 115 in the upper house Senate, meaning that it could form a majority with either one of the League, Forza Italia and the Democratic Party (PD), which had a disastrous night.

PD leader Matteo Renzi looks doomed after his party dropped to 19 percent of the vote, which according to YouTrend could lead to a loss of a third of their seats in the Chamber and half in the Senate.

The M5S has always refused to form coalitions with other parties but having become the biggest single party, it has the chance to lead the country for the first time, and Di Maio has already moved to soften the fiery image given by party founder Beppe Grillo.

ANALYSIS: A new direction for Italy's Five Star Movement? Beppe Grillo distances himself from the party he founded

However, given its heated rivalry with the PD and Berlusconi, its most likely ally looks to be the eurosceptic League, a bizarre situation for Avellino-born Di Maio to be faced with given the League and Salvini's roots in the old secessionist, anti-southern Northern League.

Matteo Ricci, former vice president of the PD and the party's current mayor of Pesaro, insisted on state broadcaster Rai that there was no chance of the PD helping the M5S forming a government.

“The ony ally with whom the M5S can form a government is Matteo Salvini, everyone knows it, that's the only option for them with this parliament,” Ricci said.

Should the M5S stick to its old principles and not try to form a coalition, it would leave the path completely free for Salvini.

'Bad night' for EU 

The boost for far-right and populist parties has drawn comparisons to Britain's vote to leave the European Union and the rise of US President Donald Trump.

Brexit firebrand Nigel Farage congratulated the Five Star Movement, his allies in the European Parliament, “for topping the poll” as by far Italy's biggest single party.

The possible alliance between the League and Five Star will also delight former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, who called that coalition “the ultimate dream”.

Resentment at the hundreds of thousands of migrant arrivals in Italy in recent years fired up the campaign, along with frustration about social inequalities.

“These are historic results,” Giancarlo Giorgetti, deputy head of the League, told reporters in Milan.

Alessandro Di Battista of the Five Star Movement, said: “Everyone is going to have to come and speak to us”.

Andrea Marcucci, one of the ravaged PD's lawmakers, said: “The populists have won and the Democratic Party has lost”.

READ ALSO: 12 pictures that tell the story of the Italian election campaign

Maurizio Martina and PD president Matteo Orfini speak to press. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

'Constant instability' 

Berlusconi, a flamboyant three-time former prime minister, is on the ropes after his electoral flop, which means European Parliament President Antonio Tajani's candidacy as prime minister is likely dead.

The billionaire, who won his first election in 1994, has returned to the limelight at the age of 81 despite a career overshadowed by sex scandals and legal woes, but has turned out to be the big loser alongside Renzi.

ANALYSIS: What can we expect after the Italian election, and how did we get here?

The election campaign was a gloomy one marred by clashes between far-right and anti-fascist activists, as well as a racist shooting spree by an extreme-right sympathizer last month.

In the event of a stalemate, President Sergio Mattarella will have the key role of choosing a prime ministerial nominee who could command a majority in parliament but negotiations could take weeks or even months.

“The verdict in Italy is always the same: the country is in constant instability. Being ungovernable has become endemic,” said Claudio Tito, columnist for La Repubblica.

By Terry Daley


Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

With Italy's next general election scheduled for September 25th, who is eligible to vote - and how can those who are do so?

Who can vote in Italy's elections?

Who can vote in Italy?

For the upcoming election in September, the answer is simple: only Italian citizens are eligible to vote in Italy’s general elections.

Foreign EU nationals who are resident in Italy can register to vote in municipal and European parliamentary elections, but national elections are reserved for Italians only.

Until recently, not even all Italian adults could participate fully in the process: just last year, voters needed to be over the age of 25 to take part in senate elections.

That finally changed with a reform passed by parliament in July 2021. It’s now the case that any citizen over the age of 18 can vote for their representatives in both the lower house and the senate (both ballots are held at the same time).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

You don’t need to be resident in Italy to vote; Italian citizens living abroad can register to vote via post.

In fact, Italy is unusual in assigning a set number of MPs and senators to ‘overseas constituencies’ that represent the interests of Italians abroad.

These constituencies are split into four territories: a) Europe; b) South America; c) Northern and Central America; d) Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica. Each zone gets at least one MP and one senator, with the others distributed in proportion to the number of Italian residents.

Up until recently, there were as many as 12 MPs and six senators dedicated to overseas constituencies. This will drop to eight MPs and four senators from September, thanks to another reform enacted in late 2020.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

How can you vote?

While Italy has a postal vote option for citizens living abroad, Italians resident in Italy must vote in the town in which they are registered to vote (i.e., their comune, or municipality of residency), at the specific polling station assigned to them.

What's behind Italy's declining voter turnout?

Italian citizens who are resident in Italy can only vote in person. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

The lack of a postal vote for Italians in Italy is thought to be one of the main factors behind Italy’s declining turnout in elections, and a parliamentary committee on elections has advised introducing one to help remedy the situation; but for now, only in-person votes count.

READ ALSO: What’s behind the decline in Italian voter turnout?

Italians living abroad who are on the electoral register should receive their ballot papers (pink for the Chamber of Deputies, yellow for the senate) from their consulate in the lead up to the election. Their completed ballots must arrive back at the consulate no later than 4pm local time on September 22nd.

Those who haven’t received their ballot papers by September 11th should contact their consulate to request that the documents be resent.

Italians in Italy must have a tessera elettorale, or voter’s card, to be allowed to vote in person. The card contains the holder’s full name, date of birth, address and polling station. Every time the holder goes to vote, the card – which takes the form of a piece of reinforced folded paper – is stamped.

The tessera elettorale should be automatically sent out to Italians at their home address when they reach the age of 18; for those who acquire citizenship and move to Italy later in life, it should be automatically sent to their address by the comune where they are registered as a resident.

If the tessera gets lost, damaged, or becomes filled up with stamps, the holder should request a new card from their comune. 

When an individual moves towns, they should turn in their tessera in order to receive a new one from their new comune. For those who move house but stay in the same town, their comune should send an official slip confirming the new address that can be used to update their tessera.

Anyone who hasn’t automatically received a tessera elettorale and is entitled to one should contact their comune to claim theirs.