ROME — Politics can create strange bedfellows, but nobody knows who will sleep with the winners of Italy’s election: Matteo Salvini, the nationalist leader of the far-right League, and Luigi Di Maio, the moderate face of the furious 5Star Movement.
No parliamentary majority is in sight. The populists won; they crushed Italy’s last traditional party — former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party — and swept away old, smiling Silvio Berlusconi. But they didn’t win enough seats to rule.
Everything is possible, of course, and much depends on who President Sergio Mattarella decides to entrust with the task of forming a government — as well as on the disinclination of the newly elected parliamentarians to risk their salaries and undergo the spectacle of a new election.
But for the moment, there isn’t even the slightest showing of a new political order. On the contrary, what we’re witnessing looks like nothing more than a nihilistic obliteration of the old system in a blind flight toward an uncertain future.
Di Maio has gained a reputation as the leader that brought the 5Stars in from the cold.
The markets are, so far, apparently unperturbed by the possibility of political instability in Italy. And the European public is tired of looking at Italy as a problem to be dealt with, with sirens going off at all hours — celebrating instead the country’s ability to extricate itself from the troubles its leaders put it in.
But this time could be different. The last time Italy’s political foundations collapsed — in 1993 when the parties that had governed Italy since the end of World War II were swept away by mafia and corruption scandals — the political leader who emerged was Silvio Berlusconi.
But while Berlusconi was radically new, what he offered was also more of the same. What Italians call “the Second Republic” has spent nearly 25 years tottering on this fluctuating mix of promised renewal and old habits (good and bad).
The winners of last Sunday’s conflagration are, by contrast, aliens — that is they are almost totally estranged from the mere idea of a common code of conduct.
Salvini has realized in Italy what Marine Le Pen could not in France: uniting euro-bashers and immigrant haters into a powerful political force — one that, in coalition with Berlusconi’s weakened Forza Italia, is close to having an outright majority.
5Stars leader Luigi Di Maio | Alberto Pizzoli/AFP via Getty Images
Di Maio has gained a reputation as the leader that brought the 5Stars in from the cold, a flexible, moderating force on a movement that was born with the explicit intent of sweeping away the old rotten order. But he is nonetheless first and foremost a son of that project.
Political parties are in trouble in Germany, but they’re still standing. In the U.S. the Republican establishment may be struggling to contain and condition President Donald Trump, but the American administration still faces checks and balances.
In the U.K., it’s not the Euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party that prevailed; Brexit is in the hands of establishment Tories. France, where traditional parties have also collapsed, is in the safe hands of a Gaullist epigone.
The exception is Italy, where political parties have been virtually abolished as instruments of representation, leaving a howling vacuum to be filled. The collapse of the Italian establishment that started in 1993 is not yet over. There is no Third Republic, just the crumbling remnants of the Second.
We may yet be surprised. Parliament may provide an answer, and strange new political experiments may be tried — at least for some time.
But the real question about Italy is when and how the country will begin the painstaking task of reconstructing a solid political order, one that guarantees true political representation — not the celebration of nihilism.
Giuliano Ferrara is the founding editor of Il Foglio.