Could the right make a comeback in Italy?

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
There is still some nostalgia in Italy for the era of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, when the country enjoyed at least modest economic growth (source: dpa)

European elections are exciting and unpredictable these days. Italy’s recent local elections saw the center-right coalition win 16 of the large municipalities involved, outnumbering the left by 10. This is even more significant, as the right won cities that were considered true bastions of the left, like Genoa, La Spezia and Sesto San Giovanni. Sesto San Giovanni has not had a right-of-center mayor since back in World War II.

Just a few months ago, nobody would have bet a penny on the electoral appeal of the Italian center-right. The next national election seemed bound to be a contest between former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Mr. Grillo’s group has been rising continuously, proving capable of snatching former right-wing supporters’ votes, even though its political leadership falls on the Corbynist left.

Not only does former Prime Minister Renzi’s star now seem to be fading, but Mr. Grillo’s movement was essentially left out of the runoffs.

Surprising success

True, these were not national elections. But in a sense, this made the right’s success more remarkable. Traditionally, the left has an advantage in local elections: it is better structured and can attract local talent easier. The Five Star Movement is supposed to be a grass-roots insurgency, and therefore better suited to grow and motivate local leadership.

Mr. Berlusconi is not remembered as a wannabe authoritarian prime minister, nor as tremendously decisive

Right-wing parties have long looked sclerotic – a close-knit coterie of top parliamentarians desperately looking to keep their jobs in the face of decreasing popularity. This shrinking support is often blamed on former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Outside of Italy, Mr. Berlusconi is best remembered as a prototype for Donald Trump with a rather embarrassing personal life.

Despite the caricature international media have often enjoyed painting of him, Mr. Berlusconi is not remembered as a wannabe authoritarian prime minister, nor as a tremendously decisive one. Still, a certain nostalgia for his times, when the economy experienced little growth but had not yet entered a condition of seemingly inexorable stagnation, may be building in the Italian electorate.

Stabilization trend?

Looking at Europe, there seems to be – except for Brexit – a trend toward stabilization at work. In the Netherlands first, and later more notably in France, voters seemed to prize the devil they know over flamboyant promises of change. The compelling victory of Emmanuel Macron’s party in the legislative elections seems to point toward a widespread desire for governability and moderation, while until a few weeks ago a thirst for dramatic shocks seemed to be the dominant sentiment.

Does Italy’s election fit this trend? It is still hard to say. But perhaps these elections signal that old political cleavages are more resilient than we thought.

Italy has been a remarkable right-of-center country for most of its history

Italy has been a remarkable right-of-center country for most of its history. The Christian Democrats dominated the scene for 50 years, gaining votes the north and south. Center-left parties were strong in local elections, particularly in the central regions (like Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Umbria), but a coalition that included the former communist party won a clear victory at the national level only in 1996. (There was another win in 2006, but it was thin and ambiguous.)

This is not the result of any allegiance to any particular ideological credo in Italy, but rather a certain conservative disposition. In the 1990s, Mr. Berlusconi built on this inclination, updating it with the trappings of free market rhetoric.

This conservative lean is now being reinforced by a fear of uncontrolled immigration. The Northern League, a former secessionist party which, ironically, turned nationalist, is building a following on such worries. High levels of fiscal pressure and public spending, matched by public services perceived as wasteful, could create room for a revival of promises to roll back government.

All of this would require competent and credible leadership, which is what the center-right lacks. Mr. Berlusconi was no Margaret Thatcher, and is now 81. Still, Italians may realize that neither the left nor the Five Star Movement can offer better options. In the face of a potential Grillo government, a Berlusconi comeback could be the curious shape the trend toward political stabilization takes in Italy.

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