Italy’s distracted political elite

May's European Parliament election will shape the future of Italian political parties – will it enable traditional mainstream parties to stage a recovery? 

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Trouble in Libya seems to keep Italian leaders awake at night. Rome sees the recent surge in violence there as having destabilised north Africa in ways that affect not only Italy but all of Europe – not least due to its impact on migration. Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s current prime minister and head of its Presidency Council, claims that around 800,000 people in his country – some of them terrorists – are ready to leave for Europe.

The intensification of the Libyan conflict has had two major effects on Italian politics and policy. The first can be seen in Rome’s renewed efforts at strong, multi-dimensional engagement with Libya, which is intended to help find a political solution to the war and to enhance Italian influence in the country.

The second effect is more visible: migration has become, again, a major issue for the Italian political elite. Having been somewhat side-lined in recent months by  the very loud Sino-Italian economic deals and tactical preparation for the May 2019 European Parliament election, the issue is once again – as it has been for most of the last year or more – the key battleground for Italy’s political parties. Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League, has reaffirmed his commitment to closing Italian ports to migrants, in the face of opposition from the Five Star Movement, his party’s partner in government, and a Democratic Party that characterises him as isolationist. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has tried to act as a neutral intermediary for all sides, aiming to prevent hostility to immigration from fuelling a new humanitarian crisis and to keep the United States involved in initiatives to end the Libyan conflict.

Yet, despite the furore over migration, the Italian public is most worried about economic issues. According to new ECFR research conducted with YouGov, 47 percent of them are most worried about unemployment, 20 percent about national debt, and 16 percent about the economy broadly. In comparison, 32 percent perceive immigration as a major national concern (this figure rises to 53 percent among League voters).

Italians have similar perceptions of the European Union as a whole. Just 15 percent of them see migration as a main threat to the EU, while 18 percent see Islamic radicals and nationalism in Europe in this way.

Three aspects of ECFR/YouGov’s findings could help Italian political parties understand voters’ thinking, thereby helping them prepare for the European Parliament election:

  • Italians – like Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Spaniards, and Greeks – are more concerned about emigration than immigration. Around 35 percent of Italian voters are worried about both phenomena, a trend that is particularly marked among centre-left voters. Brain drain is an especially sensitive issue in Italy because around 280,000 young, educated people leave the country every year, most of them for the United Kingdom and Germany. This is a considerable loss for Italy’s intellectual and economic life.
  • In contrast, China and Russia – frequent sources of competition for political advantage between the League and the Five Star Movement – are a concern for just 4 percent and 1 percent of Italian voters respectively. Although Rome’s recent deals involving Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative fractured the governing coalition, Italians do not seem alarmed about the prospect of a Chinese economic invasion. Although the public has little interest in Russia, factions within the Italian government may attempt to gain a political advantage from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Italy in June.
  • Climate change has entered public discourse: around 54 percent of Italians want the government to tackle the issue urgently and only 18 percent believe that climate change is not a real threat. This represents a significant shift, as corruption and other economic issues have typically taken precedence over the environment. (As can be seen in support for the Federation of the Greens, which has mostly worked at the regional and local level since leaving parliament in 2008.)

Deep disillusionment

Against this background, Italy’s political parties are in full election campaign mode – as they arguably have been since the March 2018 national parliamentary election. Nonetheless, a lot has changed in the past year. The League now polls at 32,3 percent of the vote, having nearly doubled its support; the Five Star Movement now polls at 22.3 percent, and is competing with the relaunched Democratic Party, at 22 percent, for second place; Forza Italia, at 8,4 percent, is struggling badly (numbers as of 23 April).

According to ECFR/YouGov findings, 11 percent of Italians support mainstream parties and are not tempted to vote for one of their anti-European rivals. This is roughly in line with support for mainstream parties in other big EU member states. In Italy, the real uncertainty lies in how successful the Five Star Movement and the League will be in appealing to undecided voters.

Just 15 percent of Italians see migration as a main threat to the EU, while 18 percent see Islamic radicals and nationalism in Europe in this way

Only 9 percent of Italians believe that both the national and European political systems work. This statistic could be explained by the fact that many Italians feel that the system has betrayed them, especially in relation to social welfare, employment, and the EU’s imposition of fiscal rules that perceivably have no benefits. It is also reflected in a widespread conviction that their children’s lives will be worse than their own. Almost 70 percent of Italians believe that corruption is a major issue in their country and that the government has no real strategy for combating it.

The fact that almost 70 percent of Italians believe the EU is broken also likely relates to the fact that both the League and the Five Star Movement have put the battle to change Europe at the core of their political ideologies, albeit in very different ways. Thus, the European Parliament election is hugely important for Italy and Europe. It is likely to determine Salvini’s future as an Italian and European leader. Although he has a high chance of electoral success domestically, he seems unlikely to fare well in a Europe in which he lacks influential allies. He may be able to benefit from some common ground with other European leaders on the broad aim of radically changing Europe, but he is unable to do so on important European policy issues such as Russia, migration, and economic reform, where Italian priorities largely diverge from those of other member states.

The election will also determine whether traditional mainstream parties can stage something of a recovery. In Italy, the Democratic Party’s capacity to draw votes from the leftist core of the Five Star Movement will be crucial to its attempts to recover from its decline of recent years. It will seek to appeal to Italy’s so-called “invisible party”: the 46 percent of Italians who do not plan to vote, and the 8 percent who are undecided.

With the new Italian parliament having been in place for just a year, the May 2019 election provides a unique opportunity for all Italian parties to shape their country’s role in Europe. If they are to do so successfully, they will have to focus on responding to citizens’ biggest concerns rather than disputes over issues that do not interest voters.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Deputy Head, Rome office
Policy Fellow

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