Riding the tide of popular protest against established institutions and parties, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) came to prominence in 2012, promising a new form of nonideological politics based on direct democracy and opposition to elites. In local elections earlier this month it came a poor third in most of the 160 larger municipalities where voting took place, making it through to the runoff ballots, held at the weekend, in only 10 cases.
True, in these cases it did well, winning in eight of them. But there was nothing unusual about this, for it is a protest party drawing support from across the left-right spectrum. So it almost always does well in runoffs. The headline result has been the success not of M5S but of the centre right, along with the increased vote share of the two established (centre-right and centre-left) coalitions. This is not dissimilar to what happened in the UK on 8 June, when the Ukip vote collapsed.
M5S has been quite resilient in the face of evidence that seems to fly in the face of its claim to stand for a new, more honest politics. But this time it has been handicapped by a lack of well-known faces, by its disastrous administration of Rome, and by internal conflicts. As it has penetrated political institutions, it has been called upon to make choices it could avoid as a mere protest movement, shouting from the outside.
As elsewhere in Europe, the Italian populists have found themselves grappling with the classic dilemma that arises when such parties join coalitions: do they make concessions in the interests of stability, hoping thereby to retain the support of moderates? Or do they threaten government stability so as not to lose the support of diehards?
They have suffered as a consequence, and the pattern is repeated elsewhere. In Norway, the Progress party has slipped back in opinion polls from the 16.3% of the vote it won in 2013, having been damaged by its unsympathetic response to the refugee crisis as well as its record in government. In Latvia, the National Alliance has seen a steady decline in its poll ratings, down to 9.1% from the 16.6% it won in 2014. In Finland, support for the Finns party dropped from 17.7% to 10.7% over just six months in 2015.
Though a number of western democracies have recently seen elections or referenda that have been widely dubbed as “populist revolts”, much depends, in interpreting the outcomes, on one’s chosen points of reference. Nothing makes this clearer than the result achieved by Corbyn’s Labour last month: yes he lost, but he has been immeasurably strengthened because he did so much better than expected. Trump, who by contrast won, did better than expected; but still, he lost the popular vote by some 2 million. Norbert Hoffer, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen were all decisively beaten.
All these results have significant implications for the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the future of Europe. On the one hand, governments under pressure from anti-establishment parties may be tempted to resist concessions to the UK in order not to encourage anti-European forces within their own borders.
On the other hand, if the growth of such forces has reached a peak, as recent results suggest they may have done, then the size of the obstacles in the way of European integration ambitions has been reduced. Either way, the European project is perhaps more secure than has been widely assumed; and it would still be relatively secure even if parties such as M5S were to find themselves doing better than they have done this week. In government, M5S would be uniquely badly placed to withstand the threats deriving from the capital flight and economic turmoil its promise of a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro would probably bring. And it would have to overcome a whole series of constitutional obstacles (not least the ban on referenda on international treaties) in order to hold such a vote in the first place.
At a time of uncertainty, when even the smallest political shifts can seem portentous, last Sunday’s local elections in Italy bode well for Europe. The same cannot be said for the UK which now looks likely, in the event of Brexit, to find itself left out of an EU that is increasingly integrated, and increasingly powerful.