The rocky electoral road charted by European voters continued in Italy, which held polls over the weekend, as the surge in populist forces predicted in recent months shook up the establishment in Europe’s fourth largest economy.

By early afternoon it appeared that Italy could be on course for a hung parliament, with the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement (M5S) gaining the largest number of votes. A right wing coalition involving former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party also gained ground, leaving the centrist governing coalition in third place, Reuters and other news agencies reported.

Populist forces gain

For now the existing government will remain as caretaker as the negotiations on the future shape of the new government proceed, with the possibility of another election if no agreement is reached.

Populist forces have made gains across Europe with varying degrees of success. While the British Brexit referendum was seen widely as the harbinger of the ascent of populism, right wing forces have been kept at bay in many of Europe’s largest economies.

In the Netherlands, the ruling centre right party triumphed by taking on a tougher stance on immigration; in France, Emmanuel Macron decisively beat Marine Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election, and in Germany, the far right Alternativ fur Deutschland, while gaining significant ground, failed to prevent the formation of the next Merkel-led coalition government.

In Britain, the far right UK Independence Party performed poorly in last summer’s general election. However, in Austria the far right Freedom Party won sufficient seats to join the Austrian People’s Party, highlighting the continued threat such forces continued to pose across Europe, often exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment that has risen across the continent in the wake of the 2016 migration crisis. However, most have steered clear of pushing for an exit from the EU, aware of the dire economic consequences such a move would pose for their country. This has been the case in Italy too, with the 5-Star Movement backing down on initial commitments to a referendum, and pushing for reform instead.

Berlusconi, too, has attempted to portray his party as one in favour of a closer working relationship with EU, and last month embarked on a charm-offensive in Brussels, where he said that his alliance would attempt to keep the budget deficit within the 3 per cent of GDP limit as per euro zone requirements.

Salvini’s campaign

However, the coalition has struggled to maintain a veneer of unity on this, with the far right Northern League insisting it would be pushing for an exit from the euro zone. The Northern League appeared to have performed better than anticipated, with its leader Matteo Salvini claiming its coalition would be able to form the next government.

Support for the party has surged from around 4 per cent in 2013 to around 18 per cent in this election. “What Salvini has done since taking over in late 2013 is remarkable,” wrote Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Griffith University, on Twitter.

Salvini has built his campaign on nationalist, and anti immigrant sentiment, pushing the need to revive domestic industry, and clamp down on immigration. In 2015, for example, he lauded the decision of a local mayor to deny citizenship to an Indian origin woman who spoke limited Italian.

“The Italian vote suggests little appetite for economic policies that would keep the Italian fiscal deficit under the 3 percent Maastricht limit,” said Goldman Sachs in a note on Monday morning. It added that this would spur tensions with northern European countries and hamper attempts towards further integration and risk sharing, propounded by French President Emmanuel Macron. It was unlikely that any government would push ahead with reforms to address the economy’s long-standing weaknesses, whether fiscal, growth related, structural or institutional, they added.

The results highlight the plight of centrist parties in Europe, which have struggled to sufficiently respond to the sense of public alienation and dissatisfaction that has been sweeping the continent.

In Italy, the Democratic Party’s (PD) woes were exacerbated after leader Matteo Renzi attempted to bring about major constitutional reforms that would have further centralised powers — efforts that were resoundingly rejected in a referendum in 2016, forcing Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister.

Media reports suggested that Renzi, who led the PD in the election, would step down as the party’s head. The loss of Renzi and apparent failure of Berlusconi’s party to make a come back in the way many had predicted, suggests Italian politics is about to enter a new level of unpredictability.

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