“Immigrants are the perfect scapegoat for all manner of angst, both economic and cultural, and very easy fertile ground for the populists,” said Simon Tilford, chief economist for the Institute for Social Change. “It reflects a broad loss of confidence in governance and government institutions.”
Money matters, too
The Italian economy is finally growing, albeit anemically, after a decade of no growth, but it remains far weaker than it was before the financial crisis of 2008. Its current growth rate, 1.5 percent of gross domestic product, is poor compared with the rest of the eurozone, and even that growth is not benefiting the young and the middle class, Mr. Tilford said.
“There is a powerful complacency in Europe, and people forget what Italy has been through economically and how weak the recovery is,” he said.
Nor did Brussels help much, said Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, a fact that undermined Matteo Renzi’s effort as prime minister to overhaul the Italian economy and its institutions, further harming the center-left.
“There was a big debate he had with Brussels to get more fiscal space, to get more growth and use that space to make Italy more modern,” Mr. Rahman said. “That was an agenda Merkel and Brussels should have gotten behind and didn’t. And then layer on top of that the migration crisis.”
The mainstream parties failed
There is a longstanding crisis of elites in Italy, considered generally corrupt and inefficient, according to Mr. Leonard. “Few wanted to vote for mainstream parties that were the authors of the stagnation of the last decade,” he said.
Further, they were led by leaders considered old or failed, like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Mr. Renzi, while the more populist parties of the Five Star Movement and the League were led by younger, more vivid and aggressive personalities. Five Star got the most votes, and the far-right League, behind Matteo Salvini, outperformed Mr. Berlusconi.
“There are European trends, but in Italy it all came together,” said Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian diplomat. “Only in Italy did the entire center collapse, and that’s scary.” It’s a bad outcome for Brussels, he said, which had a fallback position “hoping for a center-right coalition with Berlusconi playing kingmaker. But he has no power now.”
For Matthew J. Goodwin, professor of politics at the University of Kent, England, the Italian election fit a common European pattern: the demise of traditional social democratic parties; the rightward shift of voters, “largely in response to public concerns over migration, immigration, refugees and security”; and the rise of younger parties, like Five Star or Alternative for Germany or Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche in France, which are rapidly soaking up voters sick of mainstream politics.
Southern Europe is still angry
And it is angry at the European Union, in particular France and Germany, for a perceived lack of solidarity on the euro and on immigration and refugees.
There was a warning when Alexis Tsipras won in Greece during the height of the euro debt crisis, with his promises to change the European Union. And while he got slapped down by Brussels and became somewhat tamed in the national interest, anti-European feelings are alive in the southern countries of the bloc, as well as in the authoritarian-lite governments of Central and Eastern Europe.
The Italians voted largely for parties that are euroskeptic, and while no one expects Italy to leave the European Union or the eurozone, any government that emerges is likely to be much more hostile about eurozone reform, about an easy ride for Britain as it tries to untangle itself from the European Union, or about trying to discipline Hungary or Poland, Mr. Rahman said.
“All the fissures that Europe faces will be exacerbated by this government,” he said.
Leaders in Brussels and Paris would have been heartened earlier on Sunday when the Social Democrats in Germany voted to remain in a coalition government with Ms. Merkel, keeping her in power and allowing Germany to try to work with Mr. Macron on overhauling the eurozone. But that may be harder after the Italian vote.
As the French leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, said in a Twitter message on Sunday, “The European Union is going to have a bad night.”