Matteo Salvini’s Northern League comes up with plurality in 2018 Italian election

Photo courtesy of citywatchla.com.

By Boris Zyumbyulev || Staff Writer

Italians went to the polls to vote for a new government on March 4, 2018. The general election was electing the 630 members of the Chamber of Deputies, and the 315 members of the Senate of the Republic. The previous Parliament was dissolved by the President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella on December 28, 2017.

The parties that came up on top according to the results were Matteo Salvin’s Northern League, which won a plurality of seats in both the Chamber and the Senate, while the used-to-be fringe Five Star Movement, led by Luigi di Maio, became the party with the largest number of votes. The former ruling party, the Democratic Party, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, came in third, having lost a considerable amount of votes and seats. Given the splintering of the vote, the result is a hung parliament with no clear coalitions.

The build-up to this election stated with Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reform, which failed a national referendum (59% to 41%). The reform aimed to change the makeup of the Senate, which arguably would have helped differentiate both chambers, and ease the political process of ruling governments. Following the lost referendum, Matteo Renzi resigned, and was replaced by the interim former Minister of Foreign Affairs Paolo Gentiloni.

The Northern League, traditionally a separatist party, with ideas about seceding North Italy from the rest of the country, re-elected Matteo Salvini as its leader. His aims coming into the position focused on Euroscepticism, opposition to immigration, and general populist policies. One of his goals, was to re-model the party to pro-Italian nationalist party, and as a result of that, in December, the League dropped the word “North” from its electoral logo in December.

Several months after Salvini’s re-election, the Five Star Movement changed leadership, from founder Beppe Grillo to Luigi di Maio. The Italian comedian Beppe Grillo had founded the Five Star Movement as an alternative to establishment parties (Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Renzi’s Democratic Party, and to an extent Salvini’s League).

Prior to the dissolution of the parliament, forces on the left had some developments as well. Forza Europa, the Italian Radicals and individual liberals created a new project called More Europe (+E), led by Emma Bonino, a long-time leader of the Radicals. However, they did not fare as well as the League and the Five Star Movement.

At the election, there were three main forces: the centre-left coalition, the centre-right coalition, and the Five Star Movement, which stood on its own. The center-left included More Europe, and the Democratic Party as the main players; the centre-right had Berlusconi with Forza Italia and Salvini’s League.

In the Chamber of Deputies, the centre-right coalition has 265 out of 630 seats, the Five Star Movement got 227, and the centre-left got 122, which is a 223 seats decrease from the previous Senate.

In the Senate of the Republic, the centre-right has 137 out of 315, the Five Star got 112, and the last 60 are held by the centre-left.

As the numbers show, there is no clear majority by any of the parties or coalitions. Since the election in March, the parties have been discussing how to form the government, but the talks have not been successful so far. The current prime minister is still Paolo Gentiloni in his power as an interim. It is up to the president of Italy, Sergio Mattarella to choose the next one. However, as Parliament is hung and there’s still no sense of direction, or any form of a grand coalition, it is unlikely that Mattarella will make a decision soon.

Given that the election saw new forces come into the spotlight, and establishment parties were pushed to the side, I thought it would be important to bring to light some of the Italian voices Franklin & Marshall has on campus. Not all possible people are presented here, largely due to the author of this article.

Given the current political climate, many F&M students care deeply about American politics. However, in our increasingly globalized world, it is important to understand and pay attention to other countries’ governmental structures and political issues. For more information about Italian politics and personal accounts of the Italian political climate, see interviews from Professor Fognani, Professor, Lerner, and Italian citizen and F&M first-year, Enrico Calvanese.


Professor Arianna Fognani is an Italian professor here at Franklin & Marshall college. She is an italian citizen form Tuscany, Italy. She has lived in the US for 9 years. She hasn’t voted internationally for Italian elections, but she hasn’t missed a voting opportunity whenever in Italy. Even so, she keeps up with Italian politics, reads the news, and cares what is happening in her home country.

From your perspective, what do you think about the parliamentary election in Italy?

From my perspective the results of the current election were not surprising. They were quite similar to what happened in February 2013, where the results were really fractured. They were 3 different parties getting around the same amount of votes. This time, what we consider the traditional leftist party was completely destroyed. The two winning parties are new forces, and one of them is the Five Star movement. I think the new thing that they are bringing in, could be a new ethical component to politics. According to their campaign promises, they want to reduce the stipend that parliament and senators get, and what can be an incentive for people, for voters, to understand that politics is not just about making money, but helping and solving issues in the country.

On the other hand, I am aware that this people are not competent, they are not real politicians. And even though they got the votes to enter parliament with good ideas, with a good project, they will need to negotiate many of their proposals with the rest of parliament, with senators, with people who have more experience in the political field than them.

What can we expect from the government?

They just elected the president of the parliament and the Senate, but we still don’t have a government. Many say that the candidate of the Five Star Movement could be the Prime Minister, but he’s really young, and he needs the support of the coalition Lega Nord and probably Forza Italia. I really have no idea what is going to happen.

Can the Five Star movement be pushed to an opposition party, even though they won the most votes?

They have to make a compromise if they want to sit in parliament. They ran on their own, they didn’t make any coalitions, but at this point, they really don’t have the numbers to sit on both chambers, so they’ll have to make compromises. It’ll probably, absolutely, be with Lega Nord. An interesting aspect of this would be to see and understand the role of the Democratic (leftist) party, because they were almost destroyed in this election. So what would their role be in Parliament? Would they be a real opposition; would they try to negotiate on some proposal to get their ideas supported and promoted in parliament; or would they sit back and leave the other two parties lead the country.

The Five Star Movement swept the Southern rural regions, while Lega Nord had majorities in urban areas. If they do manage to form a coalition, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how both the rural and urban vote work together?

It’ll absolutely be interesting not only for that reason, but also because while the Five Star Movement had a majority in the south, Lega Nord had strong support in southern cities. So that could be an interesting balance to see how they try to resolve issues. I looked at a map the day after the election, but I can’t remember which part of the country had more votes for the Five Star Movement. I remember the northern part of Italy being blue, meaning Lega Nord, Berlusconi and other right-wing parties. And my region, Tuscany, and Trentino-Alto Adige still voted with the Democratic party. And the southern part of Italy was almost entirely yellow, meaning the Five Star Movement. But within the southern parts there were cities that supported Lega Nord. Which culturally is interesting, because Lega Nord traces its origins back to the idea of seceding North Italy from the rest of the country. But if you dig a little deeper, and you check out Lampedusa, the little island to the south of Italy, where all the migrants come to first, the mayor of that city for many years has been a member of Lega Nord. So there are frictions within the rural and the more urbanized and modernized regions of Italy.

It seems Lega Nord has changed its rhetoric from pro-Northern Italy to pro-Italy.

Absolutely. That’s a very interesting shift that has happened, and it is probably connected to a change of leadership. The main leader was Umberto Bossi, and he was the founder of the party, which kind of started off as a celebration of the Celtic roots of Northern Italy, but Salvini pushed that imagery to the side, and focused and ran on the idea that Italy should be for Italians, that we don’t want immigrants, which was not really something Bossi was promoting in that period of the early 90’s, when the migration crisis was not causing such an emergency pressure as it is now. Salvini is trying to take advantage of the current situation, absolutely.

It is very interesting, and this is a commnet some of my friends made, that Italy seemed to be working better when the previous interim government was in power, having a government that was not elected, and having a prime minister who had no clear affiliation with any party, and was acting as a balancing force. Italy was running a little better. The interim government was doing things, but there wasn’t such a fight in getting bills to pass. But in my perspective the interim government was a moment of stagnation. The only thing they succeeded in doing was creating a new electoral law. However, it seems that the new law did not bring clarity, and the big separation of the two houses that everybody wanted. It’s a system that probably reflects the vote of the people, because they are pretty divided. There isn’t really a strong majority of any side, of any party.


Professor Scott Lerner is a professor here at Franklin & Marshall College who teaches both Italian and French.

We can start with what is your relationship to Italy.

It’s one of my main teaching and research fields. And professionally it is a big part of my life. And also, on a personal level, my wife is italian, and my children are dual citizens, and we speak Italian at home. I have sort of become an adopted child of Italy in a certain way.

Briefly, what do you think of the Italian election that happened earlier in the year?

On a personal level, this is just me speaking personally, I find it extremely alarming. I think it suggests that, much as in the United States, the democratic institutions in Italy and in other European countries are very much under attack and misunderstood, and have lost credibility, among their populations. I think what has happened in Italy, well the major parties have completely floundered, and what I would have called just a very short time ago, extremist parties have succeeded. But they are no identical. I think the Five Star Movement is a party of No. It’s a party that has no affirmative platform whatsoever, and proposes, as far as I can tell, nothing, and it’s essentially an anarchic proposal without calling itself that. And I find that very disconcerting, because it corresponds to a desire to throw the bombs out, as we say in this country, but with no, with absolutely no substitute plan whatsoever. And so where does that lead? Nobody has any idea. I think the individuals involved are not experienced, and they are not very well educated, and they are not very thoughtful of what they are doing, it’s just a reaction to a frustration, a long seated frustration mostly in the South, and in the Southern part of the country with what the government has failed to do. So that’s on the one hand. And on the other, in the North, what was once a very fringe party, the Northern League, has become a relatively big player. And in France, a very similar thing happened with the National Front and Marine Le Pen, and they got quite far, the got to the second round. But then there was a rather decided no, because it was either a more mainstream party, or this fringe party. While in Italy, it wasn’t a one to one faceoff. So in the North, the League has quite a bit of power. And they have been around a long time, and they are a typical extremist party on the right, with a platform that is xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and intolerant, and encourages violence. It used to be a very separatist movement, with “we are doing very well in the North, let’s forget the South”, which is an anti-Italian position, which puts into question the whole project of Italian unification, going all the way back to the mid 19th century. So I find them very troubling, and what they do with this mess and who ends up leading and in what way is also a big question in my mind.

How do you think the government is going to look like, given who has been elected?

Immediately after the election, the newspapers were filled with all of these possible combinations, and none of them really made any sense. The most surprising would be combining the Five Star Movement with the Northern League. Then you would have a very strong domination of anti-conventional parties. The only problem with that is that they have a lot that is not in common between them. And who would be the leader of that, and where would they go. I find that a very alarming prospect. I am not sure it is going to happen. Another prospect is having one of the more traditional parties form a coalition, a government, with the Northern League. And then the question is again, who leads that government. It wouldn’t be the first time. Berlusconi had a coalition government with an extremist right party on several occasions, but they were always minority players. What is different this time is that if you look at the numbers, they would be a majority player, and potentially Salvini would be the head of the government. I suspect the president still hasn’t asked anyone to be a prime-minister, because this situation is very worrisome. And If you look back in history, there was another time, when, it wasn’t a president, it was a king, who had the task of asking someone to form a government. The king was Victor Emmanuel III, and the leader, the potential leader, was Benito Mussolini. He marched on Rome in 1922, and there was a moment, where it wasn’t clear whether he’d be asked to form a government. It wasn’t a moment as legal as it is today, where now it is completely legal. But anyway, the head of state, the king started supporting Mussolini. And the king was a very weak figure. I don’t think he was a bad king, but he was a very weak man. And so he thought he should just go with the strong man Mussolini. And I very much hope that is not what happens now. The President, who has a certain amount of power, he doesn’t have the power to govern, but he has the power to choose the government, and to help the country sort out who is going to govern the country, or what is the government going to be in terms of cabinet. So I hope the president will help sort out this situation in some way, and not simply go right to Salvini, and tell him to form a government. Because of he does that, it seems to me that Italy is really headed to a very bad situation. And it took a long time for Italy to recover from fascism.

Given the track record of Italian governments to not last a long time, even if Salvini is chosen to head the government, or another worrisome combination assumes power, what is the chance there won’t be another election in 8-10 months?

If we were betting people, or speculators, I think it is always a safe bet that an Italian government, after World War II, will be short-lived, and new elections will be forthcoming. And the very recent history of Western Europe tells us that when leaders want to be bold, and want to propose something that can really make a difference, like Matteo Renzi’s proposals, his reform proposals, and David Cameron’s Brexit vote, they risk everything to strengthen their positions. And both of them lost. In retrospect, those risks were very unfortunate decisions, because if they hadn’t gone to referendums, and they had rested within the legal elections, those two leaders could have lead their countries elsewhere. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to do what they wanted to, but they could have stayed in power and do something. You can have a referendum, you can have vote of no-confidence, which they have all the time. I think one thing people can certainly agree on is that the current situation after this election is extremely unstable and unpromising, in the sense that there is no strong party or strong direction. Nobody really has a mandate. The only thing they proved is that they want all the bums out. And so how long it will last, and whether the nation will come to its senses, and move in another direction, which I think is likely. But I do think it is always possible, like we saw in 1922, for a moment like this to be a beginning of something that becomes very deep-seated, and very, potentially, very damaging, and very long-lived. I am not saying that there is no chance that will happen, but I think if I had to predict I would say no, they will get through. It would be a lot worse if the Five Star Movement or the Northern League had gotten 70 percent of the vote. But since, they are all minority positions right now, and they don’t really agree with each other, hopefully it will be just a mess for a while, and they can try again.

What do think was the role of religion in this election?

While there used to be a Catholic party, there isn’t one now. The Catholic vote is scattered across the current parties. And while Italian Jews were very much in the spotlight in the past, they aren’t under the scope of the political discussion. What I think is very much in the spotlight right now are the immigrant, and the immigrant are by and large Muslim. I think it is generally a question of anti-immigration as it is in the US, the UK, and Germany, and France, and everywhere. It is mostly anti-immigrant, and the fear of the Muslim, whose presence becomes too big and too uncontrollable, and it becomes a threat to Italian culture, whether it is religion culture or national. I find that deeply unfortunate and deeply misguided, and I think that largely a global phenomenon. But there’s also backlash in Italy! The Italians have been generous in facilitating migration and helping people cross the Mediterranean, and taking care of them and treating them as human beings. And Italians should be proud of those efforts, I think it is a very noble thing to do and I think some of the other European countries have behaved shamefully, really shamefully, in this area. But now there is backlash to that. Maybe the Italians have done too much, or maybe too fast, or maybe it was inevitable that something like this election would have happened. But clearly, there has been a backlash to Italy’s migration efforts, and some of them would probably be reigned in.


Enrico Calvanese is an Italian citizen, who is currently a first-year at Franklin & Marshall College.

What do you think of the Italian election that happened earlier in the year?

I think the results are very concerning, because they show the rise of parties that I was hoping would not rise again, like Silvio Berlusconi’s, who was an Italian prime-minister, who pretty much ruined our international figure. And it is even more concerning that he’s coming back with other alt-right groups that are against the acceptance of refugees. I am not in favor of accepting everyone that is coming to Italy, but I think there should be a sound systematic way to deal with the problem, not by simply denying them access. I also think that euroscepticism is bad, that some parties, who are getting majority votes, are incorporating into their platform. I am pro-European Union, which places me with the previous party in power, the Democratic Party, however, they also lacked during their governance, and so that’s why I didn’t vote for anybody at this election.

Do you think this government will last longer than usual?

I’m hoping Italians, after this fiasco, will pressure the parties, the alt-right parties to resign. However, it seems that the two parties that used to be in opposition, and had previously said they would not get together in a coalition, are now considering this possibility. And that would be the worst situation in my opinion, the Northern League and the Five Star Movement. And I think the Five Star Movement is appealing because they have a lot of young people in their ranks; however, I do not like their euroscepticism. They seems to have a methodical, logical approach to the migration question, not simply denying access to people who need to migrate, but consider the pros and cons of people entering Italy from Africa. But I do not enjoy their euroscepticism, and the European Union, which seems to be facing a crisis with the UK leaving, should stay intact.  

Do you think the rhetorics has changed since the results came in, and do you think there might be some silver lining to the parties that were elected?

Well, I might disappoint you a little bit, because I have lived most of my life outside of Italy, and I know what I know from the news only essentially. But yeah, the rhetoric seems to have gone down a notch, but that is a result of the election. Because they are hoping to appeal to more voters. But it is also a concern, because you don’t really know whether they are toning the rhetoric down only as a means of propaganda, while their intentions remain unchanged. So it could be that they are trying to appeal to more people, while trying to apply whatever they wanted in the beginning. That is a big concern I have.

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