The Italian election provided a warning shot for everyone who thinks the populist wave is over. Far from: the biggest winners were the populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S), and the far-right Lega Nord.
The center parties on the other hand, Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s Democratic Party (PD) as well as Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, suffered defeats. PD’s Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister, already stepped down as head of the party. Berlusconi is still clinging on what is likely to be his very last opportunity to play politics.
Two to rule them all?
In consequence of the election result, no single party or coalition won enough votes to govern alone. There are five scenarios how this stalemate could play out, including a highly explosive populist-far right M5S-Lega Nord Coalition (one ruling the North, the other the South, supposedly).
Meanwhile, the centrist political startup More Europe reached 2.55%, and failed to cross the electoral threshold of 3% by a whisker. While it is a shame, the results make clear that the populist political entrepreneur Beppe Grillo has been more successful in building and scaling his political startup than the centrist political entrepreneur Emma Bonino.
Populist stars all around
Like Grillo with M5S, many successful political entrepreneurs recently have been either right-wing or left-wing populists – like the AfD in Germany, the PiS in Poland, Podemos in Spain, or FIDESZ in Hungary. While some observers have interpreted Marine Le Pen’s defeat in France and Norbert Hofer’s defeat in Austria in 2017 as turning of the tides, the populists are still afloat, some in fact stronger than ever before.
The Italian election has demonstrated what popular rage towards a long-time failing political establishment can do to a political landscape. Italy may be ahead of the curve in that regard, but is not unique. Traditional parties, particularly center-left, have been suffering at the voting booths for quite some time. However, most of them have shown to be unable to transform themselves at a deep level into 21st century parties.
What is therefore required are centrist political startups that connect with the emotions of the citizens, and channel their rage in a constructive way – that manage to transform protests into genuine reforms. Political startups such as En Marche in France, Ciudadanos in Spain, Nowoczesna in Poland, Momentum in Hungary or NEOS in Austria are driving such positive political change, from inside and outside the Parliament. They are all pro-Europe, pro-market and progressive. There are many lessons to be learned from their successes as well as failures in building and scaling their movements.
From a “glass half full”-perspective, More Europe has almost managed to enter the Italian Parliament at first attempt. Even though the first analyses show that it appealed more to Italians’ heads than to their hearts, it would be wrong to conclude that all is lost. In fact, that would be a tragedy: Italy needs big and bold centrist Political Entrepreneurship, now more than ever.