After four days of elections, Europe has woken up to a political order that contradicts those who feared a crushing populist and nationalist victory. The parties that took an anti-EU line in the campaign did not secure sufficient support for their common plan of dismantling the Union from within. Having lost seats to Liberals and Greens above all, the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) and the center-left Socialist and Democrats (S&D) still remain the two largest blocs in the European Parliament. Nevertheless, MEPs of an anti-EU and eurosceptic persuasion will now occupy almost 20 percent of the seats there.

Among the countries that could not resist the allure of political leaders claiming to claw back power for the nation, Italy, France and the UK came to the fore. While many British voters remained (stubbornly) faithful to the path they chose three years ago, France now faces the consequences of recent protests against Emmanuel Macron. Voters expressed a preference for Marine Le Pen over the French president, who was defeated by the nationalists by a small but symbolic margin. Yet among the leaders who considered the European elections a test for their popularity at home, Italy’s rightwing leader Matteo Salvini has to be the most satisfied.

The deputy prime minister has revealed an admirable ability to secure the backing of public opinion and been rewarded with 34.3 percent of the vote. Five years ago the League received just 6.2 percent, now it is the country’s first choice. Salvini secured the best results in the north of Italy (40.7 percent), where the League’s earlier campaign for autonomy and independence from the South begun to attract voters in the early 1990s. Back then, the political father of the League, Umberto Bossi, would refer to southern Italians in less-than-respectful remarks, prompting a general intolerance toward immigrant workers moving from the South to the North.

‘Italians first’, everything else second

This time round, with 23.6 percent of the vote in the South, the area’s six regions contributed significanlty to the victory of a party that once wished to see them as parts of a separate state. Nonetheless, the League remains second in the South, where the Five Star Movement won 29.2 percent. The latter’s success can be linked to its support for a citizen’s income, with Campania for example accounting for 16.3 percent of applications for the benefit made across the country. This was also the Region where the Five Star Movement secured its best result, winning 34.8 per cent of the vote.

Currently led by Luigi Di Maio, who serves as a deputy prime minister along with Salvini, the Five Star Movement took 17.1 percent of the overall vote in Italy, just over half of the share that brought it to power in last year’s national election. Due to celebrate its 10th birthday this year, the Movement has paid the price for its political inexperience as contrasted with the approach of the practiced career politician Salvini.

Also Italy’s interior minister, Salvini spent his campaign having selfies taken, repeating coarse slogans and launching social media games like Win Salvini. According to critics, the campaign was also allegedly punctuated by the misuse of state flights in order to reach some of the country’s more locations. The general line of criticism presents Salvini as a politician who will soon be unmasked for oversimplifying matters that demand a deeper understanding. Leftwing parties in particular imply that the Italian people have been fooled and become blind to their own needs and interests. Unfortunately, there is nothing more counter-productive in politics than saying potential voters are wrong or stupid.

This is pretty clear to Salvini, who owes his success to an ability to identify sensitive topics, understand popular needs and, most of all, show that he listens to those who share them. This means focussing obsessively on two topics, immigration and security, condensed into a slogan that may sound familiar: ‘Italians first’ (which became ‘Italy first’ during the European elections). Everything else comes second. Employment, welfare and education are not exactly priorities but rather issues that will solve themselves once we are done with the security issue. The basic idea is well known: there is an enemy and we need to fight it. Salvini makes his case on a weekly basis against immigrants, gypsies, journalists, political opponents, bureaucracy, banks, the European Parliament, legal cannabis. Anything goes as long as it keeps alive the polarization between an outside and the inside, between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

When numbers make no difference

Contrary to the claims of many critics, Salvini did not create this polarity. He simply took advantage of it. It is a fact that globalization, climate change, wars and conflicts are changing the dynamics of the world population and its distribution. Whether an intrinsic characteristic of human nature or a reaction to historical contingencies, the general perception in Italy is that there is something unknown and potentially dangerous that needs to be kept under control. Leftwing leaders tend to ignore the fact that numbers make no difference. Fear requires heroes, not numbers. Salvini knows it and proudly demonstrates his power to prevent certain boats docking in Italian ports with a single phone call.

The election results in Riace and Lampedusa speak for themselves. Once a symbol of integration and hospitality, Riace turned out to be tired of migrants and granted Salvini’s party with 30.8 percent of the vote, advancing on the League’s 0.9 per cent in 2014. It was a similar story in Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost island and the backdrop to the award-winning migration documentary Fuocoammare. Five years ago the League won 16.9 percent of the vote here as compared with the 45.9 percent that ‘Captain’ Salvini, as he is often called, won last week.

Meanwhile the young, educated Italians emigrating abroad in search of better opportunities will soon outnumber new arrivals tying to escape death and poverty. But this will not alter people’s fears as jobs are lost, rents and prices rise, businesses close, taxes increase and poorer, more desperate people continue to arrive. Italy is turning to the Right because there is no Left responding to these fears before trying to say there is nothing to be afraid of.

In search of a new path

This general perception is particularly deep-rooted in the suburbs and provinces, where education levels are lower and poverty more pronounced. Here, Europe is often seen as a distant, bureaucratic and expensive institution that is partly responsible for the general crisis. Hence the clear contrast between the provinces and the urban centres where globalization and its opportunities are better understood. Thus the Democratic Party comprehensively prevailed in cities like Rome, Milan, Palermo, Turin and Florence but lost out to the League almost everywhere else.

While the Democratic Party did slightly improve on its performance in the 2018 national election, it has yet to make any real comeback. Under Matteo Renzi it won 40.8 percent of the vote in 2014. But Renzi then became conceited, leaving the party’s current leader Nicola Zingaretti with little time to make his mark in a media landscape dominated by Salvini.

Italy is now just as paralyzed by Salvini’s omnipresence and gall as it was by Berlusconi’s. The good news is that even though Italian voters tend to be excited by these kinds of characters, they are just as likley to become annoyed with them when they fail to serve the electorate. If only leftwing parties would stop trying to catch up with their opponents by merely following their every move and, instead, start to build a new path that shows how important Europe is to solving real problems – then we might start moving forward again.

This is an edited version of an article first published online in Il Mulino.

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