Ever since Silvio Berlusconi first became Italian Prime Minister in 1994, Italian governments have tended to undulate between Berlusconi led coalitions which include a combination centre-right pro-business parties and various right-wing and some would say even far-right parties including the separatist Lega Nord. Berlusconi’s main electoral achievement has been his ability to consistently put together governing coalitions that last, something which previous Italian Prime Ministers had never been able to successfully do in post-war Italy.
While Berlusconi’s right wing coalitions were often broken up by periods of technocratic to centre-left governments, when such governments ran their course, Berlusconi and his typical coalition partners would usually come back. Yesterday’s election was no different. After just over five years of centre-left (liberal)/technocratic rule, Berlusconi is back. Along with his Forza Italia party are also the pro-business Union of The Centre, the centre-right Christian Democratic Centre and the far-right Lega Nord. Lega Nord actually outperformed Forza Italia, but due to its controversial policies, will still rely heavily on Berlusconi as a political manager and kingmaker within the wider coalition.
How a time tested coalition in which the most successful modern Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi is the de-facto leader can be considered ‘revolutionary’, is an insult to the intelligence of the ordinary person. It is merely a case of meet the new boss, same as the incredibly familiar old boss along with long standing coalition partners.
Only two things have changed since Berlusconi’s last successful election in 2008. First, the Lega Nord is now led by Matteo Salvini, a man who has pushed has right-wing party to the centre of attention due to his embrace of the increasingly fashionable anti-migrant policies, cultural nationalism and the Euroscepticism of fellow Europeans including Marine Le Pen in France and to some extent Geert Wilders in The Netherlands. Berlusconi, being a premier opportunist has been all to happy to embrace a Lega Nord that has partly refashioned itself from being purely regionalist and right-wing, to also being more populist according to contemporary European trends among the right. The results have paid off for both Lega Nord and Berlusconi. The other more important difference is that when in previous years, when one of Berlusconi’s right wing partners offered a statement that offended centrist European sensibilities, it was an item of curiosity, when today, in a Europe that has lost its former confidence, such statements are portrayed as cataclysmic.
While the financial crisis 2007/2008, the more recent migrant crisis, Brexit, various Berlin-Warsaw/Berlin-Budapest disputes and the now quashed Catalan independence vote, have shaken Europe at a rhetorical level, on a level of day-to-day functionality, the EU is little different today than it was in 2008. It is a bit more bruised and battered, but business as usually has nevertheless continued. It is only in an increasingly sensationalist and hysterical Europe press in which the sky is falling, something that ironically plays into the hands of both the power-grabbing centre and the ostentatious far-right.
In Italy, things are much the same. The difference is that while the migration that the Lega Nord opposes was a manageable issue in previous years, the fact that Libya has become a failed state and thus, an open gateway to Europe has in fact changed. This helps explain some of the increased attention surrounding Lega Nord during this election cycle. Furthermore, while the broadly leftist to big tent Five Star Movement has done very well in the election, securing more votes than any other single party, their refusal to coalesce with any other party, means that they have rendered themselves to a role that will be obstructionist at best, or otherwise irrelevant, in spite of their electoral success. Even if they end up attempting to form a coalition, it would not be one that is built to last, even by Italian standards.
Due to the dismal performance of Matteo Renzi’s outgoing liberal coalition, the return of Silvio Berlusconi (who is still legally barred from becoming Prime Minister until 2019) will be welcomed by some and be a bad nostalgia trip for others. Overall, the chances of Italy pulling out of the Eurozone remain minuscule while the chances of Italy following the UK out of the EU are virtually zero. Furthermore, there will likely be no profound changes to the migration issue in Europe as such an issue can only be solved collectively and this means in reality, that Germany’s Angela Merkel will likely have the final word, just as she had the first.
Ultimately, while Berlusconi is a man who is eternally young both in terms of his electability and his lifestyle, politically he is mature enough not to rock too many boats, while astute enough to market himself as the man who sailed a thousand ships and than rocked them. The more things change, the more they stay the same. While a new Italian government will likely be slightly better for business and slightly tougher on migration than the previous government, there will not be any revolutionary change in Italy nor in Europe as a result of yesterday’s election. If anything, due to the difficulties of forming a government, even for the leading coalition, fresh elections may take place sooner rather than later. This too is nothing revolutionary or unique, in Italy, this is business as usual.