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Riding wave of anger over jobs and immigration, Italian voters line up behind populist parties

Riding wave of anger over jobs and immigration, Italian voters line up behind populist parties
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing, anti-immigrant League party, celebrates at a news conference on Monday. (Daniel Dal Zennaro / EPA/Shutterstock)

A pair of populist parties that rode a wave of voter anger over jobs and immigration in Italy’s general election on Sunday are now pressing to form governments after the election day collapse of the traditional parties that have dominated Italian politics for years.

Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right, anti-immigrant League party, claimed he had "the right and the duty" to lead a government after taking about 17% of the vote, which put him in pole position in a broader coalition that led voting with 37%.

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Salvini was challenged on Monday by Luigi Di Maio, head of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, who said his party was “the absolute winner” after it drew 32.6% of votes, making it the largest single party.

“We feel we have the responsibility to create a government,” Di Maio said.

But neither Salvini’s coalition, which includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, nor Five Star reached the 40% threshold needed to win a working majority in parliament, meaning weeks of negotiations and tough talks will be needed to thrash out a viable coalition.

The explosion of populist sentiment in Italy — the two parties together received almost one in two votes at the election — emphatically ends a brief period of calm for mainstream governments in Europe following Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

Last year, France’s Emmanuel Macron held off a challenge from right-wing firebrand Marine Le Pen to become president, while on Sunday, after five months of talks, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to pull together a working coalition amid rising anti-immigration sentiment in her country.

“In Italy, the political system in Italy is instead restructuring around populists who will become the new establishment,” said Giuseppe Orsina, deputy director of the school of government at LUISS University in Rome.

“Italian voters have accelerated a process that was underway,” he added.

The voting outcome was applauded by former White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who visited Rome for the election and described it as an “earthquake.” Bannon said the vote was “even more stunning than I thought it was going to be.”

Bannon told Swiss publication Die Weltwoche that the “globalist elite” had wrongly dismissed populism after the defeat of Le Pen, and that he now senses a building revolt in Europe.

The League’s campaign played to the rising voter intolerance to immigration in Italy after the arrival of over 600,000 migrants over the last four years, many arriving by sea from Nigeria and other African countries. Five Star won big in the south of Italy, where its pledge to secure a living wage for the unemployed resonated.

Both parties accused the ruling Democratic Party of ignoring working-class Italians who survive on part-time work and haven’t felt the benefits of a rising economy after a down decade.

Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi resigned after Sunday's election.
Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi resigned after Sunday's election. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA/Shutterstock)

After winning a meager 19% in the election, Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister and the secretary of the Democratic Party, announced his resignation.

“Voters have spoken very clearly and irrefutably. The populists have won and the Democratic Party has lost,” Andrea Marcucci, a Democratic Party member of parliament, wrote on Facebook.

The EU has come under fire from both of the two parties for imposing austerity budgets on Rome and failing to spread out among member states the thousands of migrants who have settled in small Italian towns while they wait on asylum applications.

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During his campaign, Salvini called for deporting thousands of migrants and closing down hundreds of unlicensed mosques that have sprung up.

Attilio Fontana, the League’s candidate for governor of the northern region of Lombardy, was on course for victory, even after apologizing for saying that the “white race” in Italy needed to be defended from immigrants.

“I am and I remain a populist because one is doing his job by listening to the people,” Salvini said Monday, adding that he was preparing for the inevitable collapse of the euro currency.

On Monday, Salvini said he would not form a coalition with Five Star, but would stay faithful to his coalition with Berlusconi, sparing Italy the prospect of a populist government that has startled markets.

“In France last year, 50% of votes were anti-establishment, but they were split between the left and the right,” said Orsina. “Then, thanks to France’s use of a runoff system, extremists did not get near power,” he added. “That has not been the case here.”

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with new details and reaction.

This article was originally published at 4 a.m.

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