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Lessons from Italy’s election, part two: triumph of the “outs”

This is part two of a five part series that began yesterday with Henry Olsen’s “death of the Ins“.

The triumph of the two major “out” parties, Lega and M5S (Five Star Movement), is so obvious that no observer can deny it. But the unity of their triumph, combined with the smallest Eurosceptic populist party, Fratelli d’Italia, remains under-appreciated. The victory was not one of two parties doing well: the election showed a clear decision to break with the past and to embrace populism per se.

I admit that at first this is hard to see. Lega did extremely well throughout the north and center of Italy while M5S dominated the south. Thus, it appears that there was a regional selection going on, that voters of the north and centre found something specific to like about Lega and those of the south preferred M5S. Thus, observers have tried to find such differences to explain the apparent discrepancy. One, for example, noted that Lega did better in places with high unemployment while M5S did better in the poorest areas. Perhaps, but there might be another answer.

I looked at the three populist parties as a group rather than separately. When one does this, one finds a striking similarity in the increase in the combined populist vote share:

  • The three parties combined gained between 16.8% and 19.7% over their 2013 vote shares in Piedmont (Turin) and the Milan-dominated parts of Lombardy.
  • They gained 20% and 23% in each of the remainder of the regions in the north and centre of the country and Roma.
  • Finally, they gained between 21% and 34% in the rural areas of Lazio and every area to the South. Excluding the Palermo (20.7% gain) and Naples (33.5% gain) regions as outliers, they gained between 23% and 28% in every other southern region.

Combining the three parties’ support together by region yields a starling statistic: populist parties received a majority of the vote in every region except the Milan area (49.3%), Tuscany (46.3%), and the German-speaking region of Trentino-Alto-Adige (41.3%). They received a relatively uniform share of the vote everywhere else, from a low of 50% in the Emilia-Romagna to a high of 60.7% in Venice.

This symmetry suggests that Italian voters saw the three parties as partners rather than competitors. Where one enjoyed a larger increase the other fell (and vice versa). Why might this have been the case? Lega certainly emphasised immigration and lower taxes more than M5S. Exit polls show the two parties had different demographic support bases, with M5S doing better among the better-educated and Lega doing better among those concerned most with immigration. And yet those findings must take note of the actual vote distribution, which suggests more complementarity among the populists than discord.

I suspect that Italy’s new voting system had something to do with this. I’ll explain why in part three, but if that is correct then there is no other way to read the results than as a complete and conscious repudiation of Italy’s current political economy and the ruling class that created it.

A better way of understanding today's political divide?

Forget Left v Right; it's In v Outs

By Henry Olsen