The rise of populism is very real, particularly at a time when establishment governments have failed to deliver for their citizens.
Just as in the United States, the rise of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in 2016 was driven by economic uncertainty and rage against politics as usual—two very different anti-establishment parties are on the move in Italy, driven by the same factors.
The populist Five Star Movement, led by Luigi Di Maio, most closely resembles Trumpism, with a desire to turn back illegal immigrants in the country and its opposition to the European Union. The Free and Equal Party, led by Pietro Grasso, is a left wing splinter party more in the mold of Sanders. It splintered off from the Democratic Party over former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s moderate policies.
Anti-establishment populist candidates could be in a strong position in 2018 elections abroad, delivering what Americans experienced in the 2016 election. Radical movements are nothing new in Europe and Latin America, but are often the proverbial dog that wouldn’t know what to do if he caught the car. Dogs can’t drive. Fringe parties—in most cases—haven’t governed.
Still, what we would view as Trump/Sanders-style political movements have a decent shot at victory this year in Italy, Mexico and Brazil, according to a broad assessment of 2018 politics by the Washington political strategy firm Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen and Thomas.
In Italy, Renzi stepped aside in late 2016 after voters rejected his proposed constitutional reforms, and Paolo Gentiloni became prime minister.
Neither the Five Star nor the Free and Equal party is likely to win a majority, but they could shift the balance of the multi-party parliamentary elections to be held on March 4. For the most part, only four parties are relevant. The other two are the ruling center-left Democratic Party, led by Gentiloni, and center-right Forza Italia Party, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Italy is ripe for a shakeup. The country had 1.7 percent growth in the third quarter of 2017, but unemployment is more than 10 percent, debt is more than 100 percent of the gross domestic product and about 120,000 refugees came to Italy fleeing civil wars in Syria and Libya last year.