Italy’s election represents a discomforting development in this great liberal democracy. The sharp swing away from the mainstream political parties of the centre-right and centre-left towards populist ‘anti-establishment’ fringe parties – which together won nearly 55 per cent of the vote – should serve as an eye-opener to the country’s European neighbours.

The two big winners are the Five Star Movement, led by Luigi di Maio, which pulled in nearly a third of the vote and is now the country’s largest single party, and the right-wing League, led by Matteo Salvini, whose share of the vote surged to 17.37 per cent. The League is part of the centre-right alliance which received the largest share of votes, 37 per cent, and which includes Silvio Berlusconi’s moderate Forza Italia, now reduced to a junior partner in a humiliating reversal of roles.

The centre-left alliance, led by Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, saw its share of support plummet to 23 per cent, as it bore the brunt of voters’ dissatisfaction with the established parties. The centre-left not only lost ground to the populist parties but also to the left-wing Free and Equal Party, which split off from the Democratic Party and managed to reach the three per cent threshold for representation in Parliament.

Despite the voters’ shift away from centrist political parties, the result should not be interpreted as a vote against the European Union or the values it champions. Italians remain, broadly speaking, pro-European and in favour of retaining the euro. Neither the Five Star nor the League are advocating leaving the bloc or the single currency, but would like to have the euro’s fiscal pact reviewed.

The results can in large part be explained by two factors: immigration and a sluggish economy. The League did particularly well in the north of Italy where a large number of migrants have settled. The fact that 600,000 irregular migrants entered Italy in the last three years cannot be overlooked, nor can the EU’s failure – due to opposition from some Eastern European Member States – to help Italy with its migration crisis through burden sharing.

Many Italians therefore felt they had no option but to vote for the anti-immigrant League, something which cannot be ignored in the corridors of Brussels.

The economy too played a major role in this election. The outgoing centre-left government of Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni presided over a modest economic recovery, limited job creation, healthier banks and better public finances. It appears, however, that few Italians have been feeling any tangible economic benefits, particularly in the south, where unemployment remains very high. This is where the Five Star Movement won a majority of votes in every region.

It should be pointed out that the Italian economy is still six per cent smaller than it was in 2008, its growth remains among the slowest in Europe and one in three people aged under 25 is unemployed.

It is not particularly surprising, therefore, that so many Italians voted for the Five Star Movement – which struck a chord with the electorate by promising to end ‘business as usual politics’. It has pledged, for example, to abolish 400 “useless laws” which would allow businesses to grow more easily. And its promise to introduce a universal pension to be paid to all retired Italians, starting at €780 per month, would have appealed to many.

It is now up to President Sergio Mattarella to appoint somebody to form a government. With no one party or bloc having won an overall majority of seats, we can expect weeks of negotiations. There are a number of possible scenarios, namely a centre-right minority government led by the League; a Five Star minority government or a coalition between the Democratic Party and Five Star; or, and this is without doubt the worst possible option, a populist coalition government between Five Star and the League.

Whoever does lead the next Italian government, it is important that the economic achievements of the outgoing centre-left government, however moderate, are not jeopardised by populist measures. Any new economic direction by Rome must be both responsible and feasible.

At the same time the EU must adopt an open mind when dealing with a new Italian government, especially over issues such as migration and the fiscal pact. Italy is a key player in the EU and eurozone, and it is important that it remains so.

The Maltese government, on the other hand, should immediately open channels of communication with both Five Star and League. Italy is one of our closest friends and allies, which, of course, should be the case irrespective of who governs in Rome. But the new Italian government, dominated by either the League or Five Star, is likely to adopt a hardline attitude towards immigrants and be more guarded towards those seeking to enter Europe through the Mediterranean. This would inevitably have an effect on Malta. The quicker Malta moves to open a dialogue with Italy’s victorious political parties, the better.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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