Italy’s Choice: Shock or Stagnation

Exclusive: Italy’s elections this weekend represent a choice between the status quo, with risks of further austerity and structural reforms, or a wild card of populists who may lack competence and hold anti-democratic views, explains Andrew Spannaus.

By Andrew Spannaus

Italy will hold elections on March 4, in which the essential choice for voters is to stay the course with the policies of the European Union, or to give populism a chance. The vote is the last in a year-long series of elections in major European countries, and the one where an anti-system party has the highest likelihood of breaking through.

In 2017, populist sentiment helped outsiders increase their support in Holland, France, Germany and Austria, although none of them won any elections outright. This led European elites to breath a major sigh of relief, in the hope that the nationalist and populist broadsides against neoliberal E.U. economic policies and tensions around undocumented immigration, would not force an actual change in the institutions.

Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in Holland came in a distant second, and Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France was soundly defeated in a run-off election with Emmanuel Macron. Yet the effects of the voters’ revolt that emerged forcefully in the 2016 Brexit vote and the U.S. Presidential elections were subsequently felt in two more unexpected locations: Germany and Austria.

In Germany the largest two parties, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats both lost a considerable number of votes. This drop, coupled with the rise of the anti-E.U. Alternative for Deutschland (Afd), had major repercussions, forcing Chancellor Angela Merkel to engage in months of talks for a new Grand Coalition with the Social Democrats. Before the election, almost all commentators had predicted an easy win for Merkel.

In Austria, the Christian Democrats People’s party came in first due in part to the tough-on-immigration stance of its young leader Sebastian Kurz. Along with the rise of the hardline Freedom Party, a new coalition government was formed that moved the country’s institutions significantly to the right.

Now it’s Italy’s turn. The populist revolt actually emerged here first, five years ago with the success of the Five Star Movement (M5S) founded by comedian Beppe Grillo. Based on the success of public rallies with the slogan “F.. you” to the “caste” that dominates the country’s political institutions, Grillo decided to take aim at the political institutions. In 2013, while refusing to go on television or radio to campaign, the M5S got about 25% of the national vote, leading to a large presence in the Parliament.

The movement’s members are generally young, “regular people” who just decided to fight against the corruption of the establishment, rather than candidates groomed to step into the country’s ruling class.

Today, the M5S is positioned to be the top vote-getter in this weekend’s elections, with recent polls showing its support at just under 30%. This is despite a concerted attempt to dampen its impact so as to ensure that it could never make it into the government. There are in fact many worries about the Movement, starting with a lack of experience and at times naive or contradictory policy positions. The biggest threat, however, has been seen as the call for a referendum on the European single currency, the Euro.

If there’s one thing the Eurocracy fears, it’s that voters will be given a chance to actually express their opinion on European economic policy, which has been dominated by the pro-finance and harsh austerity measures that Western populations have become disgusted with in recent years. The “responsible” politicians assure everyone that stopping or even slowing European integration would be a disaster, leading to depression and possibly even war. Yet they know well that when faced with the weakening of the middle class, stagnant growth and increasing social tensions due to immigration, a large percentage of voters blame the E.U. itself, which over the past two decades has gradually become the major legislative force in Europe, supplanting individual national governments.

The anti-populist imperative among Italian institutions has led establishment politicians to explicitly embrace the notion of staying the course. Representatives of the Democratic Party (PD) of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi argue that things are finally getting better now, with economic growth slowly ticking up, and the country beginning to make up the ground lost in recent years.

Renzi has worn out his welcome with many Italians, though. He came to power in 2014 without being elected, through a shake-up within his own party. He subsequently spent almost three years as the head of the government, but ended up betting everything on a referendum to reform the Constitution in December 2016, which he lost badly.

Voters got tired of his personalization of politics, a mix of big talk and modest results, and naturally began to blame him for the country’s problems.

The result was a sort of Grand Coalition in which the PD and the center-right parties, led by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, have together supported the government of current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. Gentiloni is seen as competent and unassuming, and many would prefer him to stay on after the next elections.

Once again, though, there’s the problem of the voters. The elites hope to stay the course and work gradually to improve the country’s financial position and influence in Europe, but without challenging the neoliberal framework of the E.U. At this point the only way to obtain that result would be for nobody to win the election, thus allowing the centrist parties to again work together, while keeping out the supposed extremists on both the left and the right.

There are other parties, in addition to the M5S, that present themselves as anti-system. One is the Northern League, which has become more moderate since its pro-secession days, but still takes a hard line on immigration. Although the League is once again allied with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, it is also heavily critical of the E.U.

A number of smaller parties also support anti-establishment positions, yet many won’t reach the minimum threshold for entering parliament.

The key factor in these elections is the electoral system itself. The fear of the M5S led the traditional parties to re-write the country’s election laws. The goal was to favor coalitions, rather than parties, avoiding the fragmentation of the vote and weakening the outsiders.

This goal may well be reached. Despite leading the polls, M5S has always gone it alone, rather than teaming up with others. Thus the center-right coalition is likely to have more overall votes, allowing the President of the Republic to task them with forming a government. This could once again result in collaboration with the Democrats, although probably with a different Prime Minister.

The result would be little change in the direction of the country. Some see this as positive, to avoid upsetting the system with radical proposals. Yet the risk here is that there will be little progress on issues such as inequality, unstable working conditions, and the perception of an out-of-touch, self-serving political class; all factors that could drive more social and political unrest in the future.

Another possibility would be a government anchored by the Five Star Movement and the League, an alliance many fear could emerge after the vote. This would be a true shock to the system, although probably less dramatic than many expect. The M5S candidate for Prime Minister, 31-year old Luigi Di Maio, has recently stepped up efforts to be considered credible, with meetings in the City of London and the announcement of unthreatening technocrats as potential government ministers. The move may calm fears in the institutions, but could cost him some support among the public.

The League is also taking pains to project a less threatening image. This includes distancing itself from extreme supporters on the right who have committed acts of violence towards immigrants, and engaged in physical clashes with anti-fascist protestors from the left.

Both parties have set out programmatic proposals that could force a reckoning with the march towards further European integration, such as separation between commercial banks and investment banks (inspired by the Glass-Steagall Act in the U.S.), along with calls for moving back towards national sovereignty. This forms a significant contrast with the centrist parties, that especially on the left, have adopted the line of “more Europe,” counting on voters to shy away from endorsing the path of open conflict with E.U. institutions.

Thus Italy’s elections reflect a significant, but complicated choice. On the one hand voters can seek not to rock the boat, but risk further austerity and structural reforms, while hoping for gradual progress. The other possibility is the unknown of populists who on the one hand promise a serious challenge to the failed policies of recent years, but on the other raise fears of incompetence, and also undemocratic attitudes from Europe’s past.

Andrew Spannaus is a journalist and strategic analyst based in Milan, Italy. He is the founder of, that provides news and analysis to Italian institutions and businesses. He has published the books “Perché vince Trump” (Why Trump is Winning – June 2016) and “La rivolta degli elettori” (The Revolt of the Voters – July 2017).

32 comments for “Italy’s Choice: Shock or Stagnation

  1. John Puma
    March 5, 2018 at 05:23

    Parties that “hold anti-democratic views.”

    So we are considering the Italian equivalent of the USA voter suppression and election fraud specialists the RNC and DNC?

  2. rosemerry
    March 4, 2018 at 16:47

    Those pesky voters, interfering with governments!!

  3. weilunion
    March 3, 2018 at 13:21

    In every capitalist country, all over the world, capitalism is dying. The material conditions are present for either fascism or socialism.

  4. Michael Kenny
    March 3, 2018 at 11:24

    What’s interesting is what Mr Spannaus doesn’t say. After listing the long series of defeats of anti-EU parties, he avoids predicting some sort of dire disaster for the EU in Italy. In fact, those defeats contradict the standard US anti-EU propaganda line, which Mr Spannaus repeats elsewhere in the article, that Europeans are totally against the EU and take every opportunity to vote against it. The plan to hold a referendum on the euro, for example, is, according to both 5 Star and the Lega Nord, contingent on not getting the other EU Member States to ease up on austerity. By backing AfD, the US anti-EU faction discredited Merkel and Sch?uble, the latter, a tax collector by profession (sic!) was the real author of austerity and with him gone and the SPD apparently getting the Finance Ministry, all the countries that have suffered under his bean-counting mentality will breathe more easily. Thus, a referendum on the euro is unlikely to happen but even if it did, why does Mr Spannaus think Italian voters would be so stupid as to shoot themselves in the foot? Abandoning the euro wouldn’t reduce Italy’s debts by a single cent. Quite the contrary. Any new currency issued in such circumstances would be totally worthless, whereas Italy’s debts would still be denominated in euros. Italians would have to work all the harder to pay off their debts and that would probably cause a total collapse of the Italian economy. That, of course, may well be precisely what the American anti-EU faction wants …
    For the EU, globalization has never been more than an unwelcome policy rammed down its throat by the US and has never been popular with any significant segment of public opinion. It was always TINA: “there is no alternative because the US is using its economic might to force globalization upon us”. The basic concept of the EU is a single internal market protected by a high external tariff wall. Trump’s embrace of a similar concept for the US, and the ongoing decline of US power, which Trump didn’t cause but which he is greatly accelerating, takes the pressure off EU leaders and allows them to react to public (and, in most cases, their own) dislike of globalization by backing off from it. Together, in the EU, we have the power to say no. That, of course, may well be precisely why US global hegemonists are trying to destroy the EU …
    Reality is catching up with the manipulators!

  5. Bruce Dickson
    March 3, 2018 at 10:37

    In any event, it appears the elites have little to fear – except, perhaps, for a little potential jostling of their H.G. Wells-inspired one-of-everything project (one world government guided by British sensibilities, one nationless aggregation of people, one economy, one military).

    As long as the many, or few, viable contenders are kept dependent on their money system, it really matters little what choices an easily distracted electorate believes it has. And, by performing its little backing-contending-horses parlour trick, the elite will ensure that fealty from the victors, regardless their identities, will endure.

    Note, also, that – by playing its Brexit card and its “special US relationship” to its advantage – Britain gets to keep itself distinct from the Germano/Franco/Dutch politburo stuck with the unwieldy task of keeping an increasingly rattling EU vehicle on a likewise increasingly pothole-infested road.

    Therefore, regardless of whatever apparent uncertainties might be read into Italy’s upcoming vote, I predict a certain victory for the persons whose interests and influence have dominated things for generations, already.

    The rest of us will simply have to adjust and conform – as, typically, we always have. That’s why we are where we are and they are where they are.

    Put another way, the advent of real change looks very little like the pre-election Italy of today. So, best we temper our expectations, going in.

  6. Bob Van Noy
    March 3, 2018 at 10:06

    Thank you Nat for the flurry of articles they’re all appropriate.

    One can feel the overall rejection of Neoliberalism spread around the World and it is great to get international viewpoints from people like Andrew Spannaus. Thank you Andrew.

    Clearly people are seeking something different than TPTB are offering and it is, at least, very interesting to see the various responses to the varied but all too similar Neoliberal government policies. Certainly change is the order of the day.

    Our time has been linked to the era after the introduction of movable type, and that seems accurate. Broad communication seems to have offered, yet again, the possibility of a break from singular greed. No one can predict how it will go but I’m optimistic.

    Just yesterday I read this quote on a post and it seems accurate:

    “Alvin Toffler, one of the world’s leading futurists, is often quoted, and with good reason, as saying that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

    I have read Toffler and generally like him but here I think he’s prescient…

    • March 3, 2018 at 11:07

      “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”…nice quote Bob. I’ve never read Toffler but those are wise words.

      • Bob Van Noy
        March 3, 2018 at 12:30

        Always nice to hear from you BobH, Toffler is compelling because as a Sociologist, he did on site, first person research, rather unique because he removed himself from academia rather like C. Wright Mills.
        One caution though, he was a personal favorite of Nute Gingrich!

    • cmp
      March 3, 2018 at 11:15

      Hi Bob,
      I took tis quote from the International Institute For Democracy And Electoral Assistance;
      “European elections and campaign finance: show us the money”
      By: Samuel Jones PUBLISHED: 21/05/2014
      “There are, however, also differences between EU member-states on certain key aspects of political-finance regulation. These raise questions over the opportunities to become a candidate and the interests candidates are representing once they are chosen. The data in International IDEA’s database on political finance allows for some revealing comparisons. In over half the EU countries – among them Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK – there is no limit on the amount a candidate can receive from any donor. The danger here is twofold: unregulated large donations can skew the electoral contest, making it harder for those without access to such funds to compete; and if candidates depend on large individual donations for most of their funding, they may feel beholden to these donors when elected. International IDEA’s research highlights that limits on donations can be an effective way to counter such tendencies. European-wide donation limits would help protect the EU parliament from the influence of special interests and facilitate a broader range of candidates.”

      Cycle on top of cycle, we are taught to only look at, and fight, with a partisan prism. But money bribery in politics is rejected as wrong, by 85% of Americans. When will we all learn to open our eyes and all of us work together?

      I believe that prejudice and the discrimination is foundationally built right into the system by the fact that bribery with campaign finance and issue based lobbying is deemed legal.

      … And, I believe that our society as a whole, (and it’s resulting power structure), is merely the reflection of these unequal abuses of the First Amendment.

      … I also believe that these unequal laws will NEVER be changed by those who are elected within the existing system. It can only be changed by a true grass roots, bottom —> UP, mobilization or movement.
      e.g.: Women’s Right To Vote

      … And, this is where Citizen’s United becomes so very deadly. It is so lethal at the local level, where it can easily dollar dominate the movements of the City, County and State initiatives. I ‘am bumpin’ into this one all of the time.
      e.g.: Move to Amend, Privatizing Schools, etc…

      But, isn’t it funny how those who absolutely hate taxes – are same people that insist a system of gov’t, that belongs to the highest bidder?
      … So, Are you rich enough? There is plenty of data on this one.
      … Are you are Old enough?:
      Go To:
      … Are you Man enough?:
      Go To:
      … And of course, are you White enough?:
      Go To:

      “Fifty men run this country… and that might be a high figure.”
      Joe Kennedy

      • Bob Van Noy
        March 3, 2018 at 12:36

        Thank you cmp! I hope we will have the opportunity to combine your unique experiential abilities with fine minds like Sam F demonstrates in the up coming election cycle which, I’m sure will be Unprecedented…

    • cmp
      March 3, 2018 at 11:26

      I had to make some copies of some films that I had run low on. But I now have them all prepared.

      I ‘am very busy today with the “Honey Do” list. So, it will be Monday at the latest.

      I think that you will find it worth the wait. Wait until you see this stuff!! I even found some very old, and very rare Reisner, that pertains to your front yard

      Thanks Again Bob!!!

  7. March 3, 2018 at 09:32

    Italy has a long history of weak coalition governments since the end of WW2. Though it has managed to hobble along behind the European big boys, like most of the EU’s southern nations, its weakness has allowed it to be kicked around by the northern globalists who take their orders from international bankers, global corporations and the U.S. It’s high time to kick back, but I can’t see it coming. Only Portugal with a socialist government seems to be making political and financial sense, and that’s why the corporate media and the rest of Europe tend to ignore its amazing economic and social successes over the last few years.

    • weilunion
      March 3, 2018 at 13:23

      The US smashed the Communist party and elections in the late 40’s. all part of Operation Gladio. Another country that the US both has occupied and destroyed

  8. exiled off mainstreet
    March 3, 2018 at 04:06

    The anti-system anti EU anti “atlanticist” element should have a go. The US-European power structure is morally, legally and fiscally bankrupt.

  9. March 2, 2018 at 23:00

    Looks like a replay of our 2016 election. Many were dissatisfied with the despicable choice on the left….and went for the huckster on the right, who promised much , seducing so many on the left that had lost the Democratic ideals they ONCE stood for many years before. Now we have in my opinion a President who has no sense of what to do for the average citizens and is out of his league . He lacks humility also….and seems to constantly need his ego massaged. In any case, the Italian M5S group may succeed……I hope they do for their countries sake.

  10. March 2, 2018 at 20:33

    Andrew Spannaus: Thanks for the recap on European politics as well as the specifics on the Italian election. Oksana Boyko recently did an interview with former Italian FM, Franco Frattini that I found interesting as he is now the OCSE’s special representative to the “Transnistrian settlement process”. Now, I like many others, I never heard of Transnistria before, but apparently it is the Russian speaking part of Moldova and represents a possible Ukraine type crisis as the majority of Moldovans speak Romanian and the Russians maintain a military presence there to guard weapon facilities. Apparently Frattini has had a consistently good relationship with Lavrov and other Russian colleagues that has put him at odds with other E.U. members.

  11. jose
    March 2, 2018 at 19:01

    After reading this article by Andrew Spannaus, it brings to mind an old saying ‘between a rock and a hard place’ which means being in a dilemma where the only two available options are both unsatisfying or bad. I cannot imaging what a difficult decision for any Italian voter is wether to vote for more of the same or gamble with a newcomer. I will end my post by citing writer Aaron Ralston“Saying farewell is also a bold and powerful beginning.” So good by current Prime minister Paolo Gentiloni.

  12. backwardsevolution
    March 2, 2018 at 18:37

    “On the one hand voters can seek not to rock the boat, but risk further austerity and structural reforms, while hoping for gradual progress.”

    Yes, that’s what they tell you, go with “gradual progress” because that’s the safest bet. In reality, all this does is allow the politicians, who have failed miserably in the past, to join hands with vested interests in pulling the wool over your eyes for a few more years. This way they get to strip you of your sovereignty without you actually knowing it. Like magic! And, of course, once the damage is done and everybody starts complaining, the politicians swoop in and say, “Gee whiz, sorry, but we can’t undo it now.”

    The EU is a machine, and the unelected officials running it have a plan – the United States of Europe. No longer able to devalue their currencies, the poorer nations of the South will get squeezed until they bleed. And not being able to control your immigration will be the kiss of death to Italy. Might as well rename it “Upper Africa”.

    Single currency – great. Free trade between countries – great. But get rid of the European Commission whose only concern is to the banks and large corporations.

    • john w
      March 3, 2018 at 09:14

      Well said and I concur with your, if I may say, astute assessments and observations.

  13. Keir
    March 2, 2018 at 18:22

    Time seems tipe for another reading of Mouseland by Tommy Douglas:

    2 party politics for dummies-

    • Keir
      March 2, 2018 at 18:23

      cant *tipe good… *ripe is what i mean

      • john w
        March 3, 2018 at 09:30

        Nice story. I try and do similar when explaining reality to family members. What is actually happening sound ridiculous. Didn’t work, now I’m not really wanted unless I keep my mouth shut and speak about what all other’s wish to speak about. *shrugs* Perhaps I will instead use Mouseland, but none have read anything else I sent or suggested. It is what it is I suppose. Thanks for the post and link.

  14. Joe Tedesky
    March 2, 2018 at 17:28

    Elites of the world need to study their history. There was a reason to why FDR instituted the ‘Four Freedoms’, as FDR said, ‘his greatest accomplishment was saving capitalism’. Remember that back in FDR’s day fascism and communism were all the rage. So FDR wanted somehow to incorporate a few socialist programs into the American social landscape, and by doing so the American public would get off of the idea of replacing America’s democratic process with another type of unwanted (by the elites) political domination.

    Well in my eyes, the West is going through some kind of change as we saw happen in the 20’s & 30’s. With this modern day restless society that has experienced low wages, lack of work, and tons of refuges filling their European streets now the citizens of Europe lean heavily towards the Right. Not necessarily where I was hoping these citizens would best their hopes for a better life, but none the less these Europeans are gathering together on the Right. Normally this would upset me, but after seeing to where our Left has gone these days, I’m not so sure political leanings matter that much anymore.

    Good luck Italy, for you will need it, and to further my point I will just say this, America are you paying attention?

    • john w
      March 3, 2018 at 09:12

      I don’t think most are. How many actually visit sites or channels like this one? 10%, 1%? Not enough nor soon enough in my estimation Joe Tedesky. My optimism has taken a plunge. I would like that to be a mistake, but we shall see.

      • Joe Tedesky
        March 3, 2018 at 16:02

        My optimism isn’t that far behind yours, because even to if the good citizens of America were rushing towards the exits I don’t see them running to the correct places that they should. Its like everyone has become severely stupid or something. I mean why is it the Right appeals to these citizens, and why has the Left turned into instigating warmongers? Then it occurs to me that the U.S. a longtime ago took us American citizens to this awful place. One may point to the Korean War, or no maybe the Vietnam War, and then you may ask to what about Libya or Iraq, well it doesn’t matter, because invading countries is what we Americans do. We do this without any center right or center left ideology, for America’s ideology is the stuff where war is the final finished product. What an export item indeed.

    • weilunion
      March 3, 2018 at 13:24

      Political leanings matter if one is anti capitalist or pro-capitalist. Economics is the issue, politics is just the face.

      • Joe Tedesky
        March 3, 2018 at 16:20

        Economics is always the main attraction, and even moreso for a resentful public who have lived their careers under the corporate umbrella of downward financial mobility for the working class. Then these poorly paid, or unemployed once unionist, rally towards a Democratic Party that has forgotten them. Forgotten the Union worker and working class who for so long had put the Democrates into office only to be left in the lurch due to their declining wage earner numbers that had dwindled down to a microscopic pile of dust, as their chances at them getting any representation at all is slim to none. No now the unionist is replaced by the identity voter, and with this everyone scrambles to find a worthy leader to represent them. It’s political musical chairs, and this working class hero I’m talking about just ruefully got left out and loss their chair.

  15. mike k
    March 2, 2018 at 17:05

    As the human situation on Earth deteriorates at an accelerating pace, people still want to believe that some combination of money, politics, and war will miraculously make everything come around right. A new leader with new promises will make everything OK, or at least bearable. Except it won’t. And things very emphatically will not go on pretty much as they have done in the past. Lacking even the willingness to see things today as they really are, our chances of pulling out of humanity’s nosedive are slim to none. Our near future is going to be like a plane crash in the middle of the ocean – buckle your seat belt or not, it really doesn’t matter……………

    • Paul Easton
      March 3, 2018 at 02:17

      Maybe it’s not that bad. The human is a herd animal and very few of them are interested in thinking for themselves. Right now the whole herd is in denial but pretty soon a large number of them will panic and stampede. Will that help? I geuss probably not. Well maybe it is that bad.

      But don’t worry. Be happy. We will deserve whatever we get.

      • weilunion
        March 3, 2018 at 13:26

        No we will not deserve whatever we get. This is defeatist and runs against the current of history. For those that do not wish to struggle, then they will get what they deserve. For those who do, they might and they might not get what they deserve

    • john w
      March 3, 2018 at 09:00

      I completely concur. People need to awaken to the game of the system and just stop playing. A world wide wake up and walk out. People will just have to realize in doing so, that those imbued in military, authority, intelligence, won’t wait around for the people to focus their attention on them to discern their actions and involvement, they will strike first. We are are already and have been at war with the kakistocracy, so if people do awaken to this farcical game, they’ll have to realize the war will continue until won. Great comment their mike k.

    • weilunion
      March 3, 2018 at 13:27

      Yes, “It really doesn’t matter” is about the best the liberals can offer.

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