Last Sunday, March 4, Italian voters crushed the ruling Democratic Party. Fifty-five percent of the electorate voted for the two anti-European Union and anti-establishment parties, one on the right and one on the left, both populist.
This election sends an unmistakable signal that democracy in Italy is both not working and is working well. Throughout Europe nationalistic parties are clearly in the ascendency. Let’s consider the question: Are center parties just inept, afraid to act boldly, or simply overwhelmed by events beyond their control? In short, why are anti-establishment parties winning?
Since the end of World War II and the heroic leadership of Jean Monet of France, Europe has created a community of nations dedicated to democracy and the rule of law. More recently they have formed a 27-nation Eurozone where they share a common currency, free transit of goods and people across borders, along with elements of a common governance. No other set of nations have come even close to this degree of cooperation.
Now, however, there is discontent. In both France and Germany, the center, which is pro-EU and in favor of European collaboration, is holding, but barely, while in many other countries the anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-globalization feelings are rife, as just demonstrated in Italy.
Commentators ask why Europe is turning against its historic mission. But a better question is: Why have the traditional center parties failed to act aggressively to meet the challenges that have in turn caused the rise of nationalism?
Globalization swept away jobs and cherished traditions. The U.S.-ignited recession further increased joblessness and insecurity and fear. Immigrants, largely Muslim, flooded into the continent from the wars and famine in Syria, Iraq and Africa. The failure of the mainline political parties to respond to people’s insecurities has caused many voters to feel lost in their own country, feeling like, “We should decide our own fate, not Brussels; tell the bureaucrats there to keep their hands out of our soup. Let Italians be Italians. Crime is up and it’s all the Muslims.”
An old political law has prevailed in Europe, also in our country and in the UK Brexit vote, and much earlier with vengeance after the First World War in Europe: If the center parties do not deal effectively with the fears and needs of the people, the center parties will be abandoned in an exodus to the radical parties.
Poland and Hungary already have right, dictatorial-leaning governments, and Austria now has recently turned back attacks from the right. The Netherlands and France have held the center and turned back attacks from the right. Germany, long assumed to be immunized from dalliances with the right because of its history, found its center parties battered in elections last year. Nevertheless, by joining forces, center parties still govern under Chancellor Merkel.
The new news is that in Italy last Sunday the voters resoundingly rebuked the former governing class. Consider Italy’s situation: 600,000 refugees over four years from Africa and little help from the EU to absorb them, globalization uprooting their culture, ineffective government, high unemployment, a weak and bloated financial system. The people, distraught and angry, blame the bureaucrats in Brussels. “We would be better on our own, or maybe with a strong and decisive leader like Putin.” One party slogan wrapped it up: “I want the Italy of my grandfather.”
So where is Italy now? The center was wiped out and their leader, Renzi, resigned. The two most radical parties – Five Star, which is strong in the South, and the League which is strong throughout the North – together gained 55 percent of the vote. They are both very anti-EU and might well push for changing EU rules or leaving the European Union. Berlusconi’s Forza Party came in third and is less radical. Even if the League and Five Star formed a coalition, and this is by no means certain, it will be months before Italy has a coalition government or another election.
But the most telling insight into the election is this. The Five Star has proven beyond incompetent in governing the two cities they control. Nevertheless, knowing this, the people voted Five Star into first place with 37 percent of the vote. Why? Because anger and rage were the chief victors in this election.
The U.S. has a vital interest in whether Europe can find a democratic path forward through the tangle of an evolving and dangerous new world. We too have center parties that do not meet the needs of our people.
Roy Wehrle is a Professor Emeritus at University of Illinois Springfield and a former U.S. diplomat.