What Happened

The wave of populism and nationalism that has been sweeping across Europe inundated Italy at the March 4 national parliamentary elections, completely transforming the political geography of the peninsula from top to bottom, from North to South. The moderate center-left and center-right forces that won elections five years ago have now been replaced in almost all of northern and central Italy by a more radical center-right alliance of the Northern League (La Lega) with former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the small ultra-nationalistic “Brothers of Italy" while in the country’s south, the amorphously ambiguous, populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle; M5S) won over the entire territory.

The prime victim of these elections is the center-left Democratic Party, which promoted internal reform and provided the large Italian constituency of the European Parliament’s S&D (Socialists and Democrats) Party. It has now been practically washed away – or, at best, reduced to minimal representation. The Party's leader, former Premier Matteo Renzi, has resigned as national Secretary.

The election results reflect public discontent about unfulfilled promises of economic reforms that had been proposed to lighten the considerable burden of Italy’s national debt, its heavy taxation laws, and the obtuse bureaucracy that impedes the enactment of solutions for the massive unemployment that has generated intense anxiety and triggered an ongoing brain drain as young Italian university graduates emigrate. Add to this Italy’s widespread, chronic corruption, the government’s inadequate response to uncontrolled immigration, fears of Islamic fundamentalism and further social disruption by the continued arrival of desperate but unskilled African migrants with no prospects for future jobs or real possibilities for integration into Italian society in sight…and the picture looks dismal indeed. This miasma of problems has provided fertile ground for the growth of these more radical groups.

The Good News

The threat of neo-fascist elements such as Casa Pound and Forza Nuova has been reduced. Despite incidents of racist violence against Africans and some clamorous pre-election clashes between Right extremists and members of the Leftist "social centers" that caught headlines, the votes cast for them did not reach the threshold necessary for representation in the parliament.

A Wary Jewish Community

The Italian Jewish community's collective memory includes the events that led up to the Fascist takeover and the antisemitic laws of 1938 followed by Italy’s collaboration with and subjugation to the German Nazi regime resulting in the persecution and deportation of Jews to concentration camps. It is thus justifiably nervous about this turn of events. To be sure, as noted above, the small neo-fascist groups polled far below the minimum necessary for parliamentary representation. Nevertheless, racism directed against immigrants, together with increasing hostility and concern about radical Islam and its real or imagined threat to Western democracy and to Christianity, have created a climate in which suspicion is directed at those who are “different.” Antisemitism is hard to discern in the present xenophobic and anti-immigrant public mood, but Italian Jewry, basing its judgment on bitter past experience, remains wary of the voters’ dramatic switch.

Italian Jews, adopting a “wait and see” attitude, have been keeping a low profile. Italian cities currently run by Five Star or League administrations have normal relations with their Jewish communities. But an unknown factor is the vast number and variety of inexperienced representatives of the M5S who will now enter parliament and perhaps become government ministers, adding to the perplexity of Jewish observers.

The Jewish community has had several run-ins with the party’s representatives, who have repeatedly demonstrated anti-Israel and even antisemitic biases that were subsequently denied or rejected by the party leadership.

Israel and Italy’s Foreign Policy

Although the campaign featured little discussion of Italy’s foreign policy, M5S’s leader Luigi Di Maio has recently made great efforts to correct some of its more extreme anti-establishment positions in order to be accepted by more mainstream voters. Somewhat similarly to La Lega, it stopped calling for Italy’s withdrawal from NATO, the European Union, and the Euro, and now affirms the need for Italy to remain in these institutions while working for structural reforms. The Five Star party has gradually moved away from sporadic biased and ignorant pro-Palestinian propaganda by individual exponents and even a onetime demand to recall the Italian Ambassador from Tel Aviv to more balanced positions. In a February pre-election speech at Rome's Link University, Party leader Luigi Di Maio gave his support to a two-state solution and publicly condemned Hamas as “a terrorist movement” constituting “a serious terrorist threat.”

What Happens Now?

Analysts have stated that Italy now has a “hung parliament.” No party is sufficiently large to govern alone, and alliances will have to be formed and expanded to create a majority. March 24 is the deadline for the leader of an agreed-upon majority to consult with the President of Italy on the composition of a new government.

The center-right alliance composed of the Northern League, Forza Italia and the tiny, chauvinistic "Brothers of Italy", has won the largest number of parliamentary seats in both the Lower and Upper Houses (around 37 percent, according to statistics that still need to be confirmed). Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is a minority member of this alliance, having polled only around 14 percent. Therefore, Matteo Salvini, leader of La Lega, is claiming the right to be named Premier and represent the majority in consultations with Italy’s President. However, the Five Star Movement, which has refused to run together with other parties, is the largest single party, having alone garnered about 31 percent of the vote in Italy’s complicated new electoral set-up that combines proportional representation with a majority system. Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio is therefore challenging Salvini for the honor of being called by President Mattarella to form the new government.

Creating a workable coalition will require extraordinary diplomacy and determination. The M5S has always vowed it would not make political deals, but has begun to concede it would accept “programmatic agreements.” Matteo Renzi, the defeated leader of the Democratic Party and a former Premier, has announced his resignation as party secretary and consultations reorganizing the party are undersay. To complicate matters further, the Democrats have so far refused to ally with the M5S or with La Lega; La Lega has also refused to ally with the M5S, etc.

The situation remains fluid, and may change at any time.

In the unlikely possibility that the various parties are unable to line up with each other and form a government, Italy’s parliament will really be “hung,” and the only solution will be to schedule another election – with perhaps the same result.

Reactions from Europe mostly indicate a cautious optimism, confirmed by seemingly stable stock markets. Analysts are convinced that until a solution is found, Italy’s government will continue functioning normally, the incumbent government maintaining all ongoing relations and obligations.

Lisa Billig is AJC's Representative in Rome and Liaison to the Holy See.

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