In Italy, as elsewhere, elections for the European parliament have always tended to be “second order”. This means that voters see them as less important than the “first-order” elections for the national parliament and thus often use them as an opportunity to cast a protest vote or to send “messages” to national politicians.
Aware of this tendency, politicians focus their campaigning (and journalists their reporting) on national issues, with the result that European election campaigns are not primarily about the parliament or what its members do there but about the distribution of support between politicians, policy positions and parties in the national arena.
Against this background, the main focus is on the implications of the outcome for the recently installed prime minister, Matteo Renzi and his government. There is also much interest in the growing Euroscepticism as expressed by a number of parties led by Beppe Grillo’s Five-star Movement (M5S). Observers are also keeping an eye out for signs of a resurgence of the radical left under Greek opposition leader Alexis Tsipras and on the domestic reform implications of a poor result for Forza Italia (FI) under its ageing leader Silvio Berlusconi.
As the post-election standing of every one of these causes and parties will have very significant implications for the future direction of Italian politics, it is not surprising that commentators, if not the general public, are awaiting polling day with an unusual degree of eager anticipation.
Renzi’s first test
May 25 will be the first electoral test for Renzi, the charismatic 39-year-old who secured the premiership in a “palace coup” in February. His audaciousness seemed to confirm popular assumptions of his ability to shake up the existing power structures against the odds.
Renzi is a politician with little ideological baggage; one who promises a Blair-style policy revolution capable of extending his party’s appeal across the political spectrum. If the Democratic Party (PD) does well it will strengthen Renzi’s hold over his party and therefore his ability to pursue labour-market and institutional reform, currently provoking significant internal divisions.
His strategy of attacking entrenched privilege is designed to cut the ground from under the feet of the Five-Star Movement (M5S) whose explosive growth at the 2013 general election was due to a wave of popular protest against established party interests and to widespread demands for political renewal. Its call to consider withdrawing from the euro reflects its success in linking its critique of representative democracy with opposition to austerity.
By exploiting widespread popular discontent with EU-imposed austerity, then, the M5S both expresses and feeds a Euroscepticism once extremely rare in a country which saw in European integration the road to liberation from the perceived shortcomings of its own public institutions.
The radical left, meanwhile, has come together under the label: “The other Europe with Tsipras” – in reference to the Greek opposition leader’s anti-austerity vision. The Other Europe, founded in March by a group of far-left intellectuals, But the left’s is diametrically opposed to the anti-European, xenophobic assumptions driving the anti-austerity of the right.
Finally, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) has adopted an ambiguous position reflected in the slogan: “More Italy in Europe, less Europe in Italy!” – a slogan that accurately reflects the rather schizophrenic attitude of a party which has always tended to combine the pro-European credentials deriving from its membership of the European People’s Party with periodic anti-European outbursts on specific issues.
The best performing party is the PD with more than 30%, followed by the M5S with around 23-25%, FI at around 18% and the remaining parties are hovering at or around the exclusion threshold of 4%.
Vote with extra meaning
Berlusconi’s political decline poses a significant threat to Renzi and to long-awaited reform of the political system which depends to a certain extent on the continuing strength of FI to check the growing popularity of the M5S. If FI does badly at the EU elections, then Berlusconi’s followers’ perceptions that his political career is over could turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. The elections will therefore not only be a referendum on Europe and the performance of the Renzi government but they are also likely to determine the future shape of the Italian political system as a whole.