Unlike previous European elections, Italian political parties in the elections of May this year focused squarely on the functioning of the European Union — rather than on the Italy’s internal or domestic politics. In fact, much of the debate was driven by the role that Italy could play in European affairs — particularly in reference to EU policies and the European economy.

The results spoke volumes. Amid a general decrease in support for pro-EU parties, conservative and pro-sovereignty right-wing parties gained a majority over many progressive populist parties. In fact, Italy saw one of the greatest successes for its so-called ‘sovereigntist’ parties, with Matteo Salvini’s Lega contributing a total of 29 deputies to the new political grouping in the European parliament, ‘Identity and Democracy’.  The Eurosceptic ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists) also received a considerable Italian contribution, courtesy of Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing Fratelli di Italia (FdI).

But the centre-right but decidedly pro-European EPP (European People’s Party), as well as the Social Democrats and ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), all saw their Italian representation drastically diminished. And despite significant Green Party success elsewhere in Europe, Italy provided them with no contributions and no increase in representation.

The coalition government parties

Salvini, who serves as Minister of Home Affairs (as well as Deputy Prime Minister, along with Luigi Di Maio, as part of the government coalition between the Lega and the Movimento Cinque Stelle or M5S), definitely won the European elections with a high percentage of votes across the country. To the surprise of some observers, his party, which has northern roots, triumphed in southern Italy as well as in other regions with a historically strong left-wing tradition. These were clear signs of the Lega’s growing success. The fact is that in only five years, Salvini has made the Lega (formerly called the Lega Nord) grow extremely fast, with its parliamentary representation rising to 34.3% last May from 6.2% in 2014. (Such results echoed the earlier triumph of the Lega seen during the national elections in 2018.)

The other half of Italy’s coalition government, the M5S, received far fewer votes than expected, despite having obtained specific (and rather controversial) projects in the year leading to the May elections. (These include a controversial ‘guaranteed basic income’ for all citizens.) It is worth noting that after only one year in government, the M5S has already weakened. Part of the reason is that its very origins lie with voter dissatisfaction, frustration, and dissent. However, its frequent capitulations to the demands of its partner (the Lega) have also impacted the strength of its original support.

But can this alone explain the M5S’s drop during the May elections? They halved their votes in just one year and elected only 14 deputies (three less than in 2014). Perhaps another more useful explanation is that the Lega is now seen as far more capable of representing Italy in the trenches of Brussels — even by those voters who originally supported the M5S. Additionally, Salvini has clearly demonstrated his leadership qualities with his robust defence of national borders during the recent migrant crisis, which has forced Europe to face its broader, communitarian responsibilities.

The pro-EU left

The Partito Democratico (Democratic Party or PD) remains the principal pro-EU actor on the Italian political scene. Since the previous elections of 2018, when it saw a dramatic decrease in support, the PD has been registering a modest rebound in support. Yet the results in May remained far below expectations, with only 22.7% of the votes. In other words, while the PD has regained many of its traditional voters, it has not made any inroads with others — especially those that continue to vote for the M5S.

The PD elected a new Party Secretary this past February, Nicola Zingaretti, so it may be prudent to wait until the next elections to confidently say whether or not the PD’s recent growth is sustainable — and whether the party itself has truly recovered from several years of internal divisions. In the meantime, however, it is worth noting that Zingaretti has a traditional social democratic vision that goes much further to the left than even that of Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister.

It is worth recalling that Renzi had seen a huge drop in popularity, with his views considered by many left-wing voters (particularly those belonging to the country’s largest unions) as being too close to those of the centre-right. Thus, the recent ‘march toward the left’ in the governance and policy priorities of the PD has allowed it to realize a 5% increase from the 17% seen in 2018, with the highest results obtained in Italy’s larger cities.

These results brought a total of 18 PD deputies to the parliamentary grouping of the S&D (Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats), the highest national representation after Spain. Still, if one takes a more long-term view, the trend is not necessarily encouraging: after getting an average of 40% of the votes during the 2014 elections, the PD halved its votes in the 2018 elections. Its gains this past May may not be enough to save it from obsolescence.

The challenge of ‘personalism’

Such electoral ups and downs may be the result of an excess of what some have called ‘political personalism’, which ties the fortunes of a party directly to the appeal of the party leader’s personality. This has long characterized traditional parties in Italy.

Movements like the Lega and M5S have done well in recent elections thanks to a growing disenchantment with the traditional parties and the cult of personality. Unfortunately, they, too, now seem to be on the same road toward ‘personalism’ — particularly, the Lega. This makes it hard for them to maintain a consensus on the issues — or to develop a modern (and feasible) political vision through serious political debate. (The same problem occurred with Silvio Berlusconi’s government — and served as the impetus for the launching of the Tea Party Italia.)

For the moment, the apparent ‘personalism’ of the Lega has yielded solid results at the polls. On voting day (May 26), many M5S voters chose the Lega over the PD, the party from which many M5S voters originally came. The Lega also won over voters from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which lost 7.2%, dropping from 16% to 8.8%. (In fact, Berlusconi’s party has been facing a constant decline in votes for years and now contributes only seven deputies — Berlusconi included — to the EPP.)

The popularity of Matteo Salvini, confirmed by the results achieved in May, gave Lega the strength to ‘break’ its ‘contract’ with M5S. Formal steps breaking the ruling coalition began in June but finally came to a head in the first week of August. The Lega’s electoral success, coupled with the decline of Forza Italia, has allowed the Lega to call for snap elections without forming a coalition — unless Berlusconi or Giorgia Meloni are able to build one.

What Italy needs

What Italy is really missing is a firm and sound centre-right party — one that is not only independent from Berlusconi but that has popular ambitions and, more importantly, a ‘classical liberal’ programme. Salvini holds many votes, this is true; but it’s hard to see a such a programme behind his many populist declarations. The Lega has certainly never claimed to be a free-market party — and it probably won’t be in the future — but it does have some potential.

Surprisingly, there is great optimism surrounding the Fratelli d’Italia. Until the May elections, it had been difficult to consider Giorgia Meloni a promoter of a popular centre-right. But her ambition to build a new Italian centre-right, in the dusk of the Berlusconi era, is becoming more and more possible. Indeed, her presence in Brussels could facilitate the quick development of such a centre-right.

The FdI should be able to reach a new level of political maturity in the coming months. But even if it does not, perhaps it will be able to merge more easily with other parties, perhaps even creating a new coalition like Popolo della Libertà (as Forza Italia had previously done in 2007 with the old Alleanza Nazionale).

The 2019 elections demonstrated how successfully the FdI was able to drain votes from Forza Italia and gain enough votes to enter the European Parliament. Meloni’s conservative, right-wing party achieved great success: it doubled the percentage results to 6.4% from the 3% it had seen during the previous European election. It thus contributed five deputies to the ECR (which shall jumpy to six, once Brexit succeeds).

The FdI has ushered in a new era of truly conservative and reformist (but still right-wing) ideas in Italian politics. This may eventually provide a healthy and perhaps even complementary balance to the sovereigntist agenda as represented by the Lega.

A polarized political scene

If a prediction can be made over the snap elections called for this autumn, then it would be that the Italian left and right could become even more polarized. There is a complete absence of a viable centre. This was once traditionally considered a huge part of the electorate, one that both right and left would try to win over. No longer. Recovering traditional centrist voters could, in the long-run, help enlarge the centre-right — especially considering that the era of Christian Democracy is over.

There are, to be sure, strong new ideas and emerging from the right-wing sovereigntist Lega and the left-wing PD, which offers some hope for a renewal of Italy’s vibrant political culture, despite the polarization. And if the M5S continues to slowly fade (as typically happens to dissent-based movements when they get to govern), the main parties could have an opportunity to forge a direct dialogue with voters on the right and left. But if they do not, an opportunity for moving toward more direct democracy will have been missed.

Additionally, although there has been some talk of more traditionally ‘classical liberal’ approaches — such as the Lega’s idea of introducing a flat tax — it must be recognized that the policy outlook of the governing coalition has not been inspired at all by economic liberalism. Sadly, neither party incorporated any of the lessons or ideas of the Tea Party Italia movement, whose roots go back to May 2010. However, the upcoming ‘snap elections’ could help open up a serious debate about such ideas, and could even bring together some of the decentralist and libertarian themes and ideas.

A truly principled, free-market conservative outlook — once nominally represented by Berlusconi (and, later, by the Tea Party Italia) — unfortunately remains in the minority within the Lega and the FdI. In fact, a truly free-market conservative outlook is quite distant from the vision that animates the core of any of the parties which now dominate the Italian political scene — and it may take a long time until such ideas make their way into any party’s policy platform.

The influence of Tea Party Italia

The time has come for the ideas of Tea Party Italia to again gain currency. Beginning in 2011, the original Tea Party Italia had been promoted and spread from an online and independent research magazine, UltimaThule. It had always considered it important to remain free and independent of any mainstream parties. Its founders and national coordinators had made a concerted effort to only endorse individual candidates (rather than party slates). It thus consistently chose not to run any candidates in any elections or to even develop its own political party.

Perhaps it should have been otherwise. For in its first year, the Tea Party Italia spread across most of the country, demonstrating how closely its vision of freedom aligned with that of many people. By its second and third year (2012 and 2013), Tea Party Italia leaders were present in all main political and policy debates, and could be seen on the country’s leading television talk shows. Those were years of extensive activity and the movement succeeded in influencing politics, both at the local and national level, by involving candidates who agreed with the movement’s plea to not raise taxes or spending. Many of those same former candidates are now mayors or congressional deputies.

The difficulty of keeping the movement free and independent from the mainstream parties, however, increased when the focus of public debates moved to internal affairs, electoral reforms, and migration. But the campaign to lower taxes and cut spending remained influential, and these ideas became more and more prevalent. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Tea Party Italia was successful in spreading such ideas across many areas of Italian politics.

Perhaps the best example is the Lega. A decade ago it reflected none of the free-market ideas and vision of Tea Party Italia. Yet now the Lega is leading the crusade for a flat tax (although its agenda for broader economic policies remains unclear). One could thus say that the Tea Party Italia’s many years of campaigning have paid off. To be sure, a lot of work still needs to be done. Italy is still far from being a ‘free economy’; but if some cultural and political barriers have fallen, and some ideas picked up by the mainstream parties, then it is all thanks to the actions and work of the Tea Party Italia.