Italy’s election is the latest rebuke for Europe’s flailing center-left

The end of the road for Renzi?
The end of the road for Renzi?
Image: Reuters/Ciro De Luca
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the past few years, the politics of continental Europe’s largest economies have been upended. The center-left, made up of social democratic and socialist parties, is reeling as it loses support to right-wing, populist, and right-wing populist parties. The Italian general election yesterday—which resulted in a messy hung parliament—was the latest example of the hollowing out of the mainstream left.

Italy’s Democratic Party had been in power since 2013, but were pushed out by yesterday’s result. The share of the vote for prime minister Matteo Renzi’s party fell to less than 20%, compared with 26% in 2013. In 2008, a year after the party was formed by the merger of several left-leaning parties, its share of the vote was 33%.

The malaise of Italy’s Democratic Party mirrors the situations in France, Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands. Each country is a special case, but financial crises and a large influx of refugees has touched every country in the euro zone, and played a role in recent elections. In Italy, anger at economic stagnation and anxiety over immigration dominated the campaign. The center-left wasn’t able to compete with the anti-establishment, anti-immigration, and protectionist messages espoused by populist and right-wing parties.

The most dramatic collapse of the center-left, however, has been in France. The Socialist Party went from running the country to receiving just 6% of the vote in the first round of presidential elections last year. It lost support to the far-right National Front and, most notably, the new centrist party founded by former socialist minister Emmanuel Macron that promised a fresh start.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party has faced a similar waning of support, and is reluctantly taking on the role of junior coalition partner in Angela Merkel’s latest government. In the Netherlands, the Labour Party has been almost totally wiped out, going from 25% of the vote in 2012 and governing in a coalition, to just 6% in the general election last year. Meanwhile, Spain’s Socialist Workers’ Party got about 23% of the vote in 2016, but a decade ago won 44%.

Back in Italy, the populist, anti-establishment Five Star Movement won the most votes, but the center-right coalition, which includes former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party and the far-right Northern League, seems in the best position to form a government. Within that group, the vehemently anti-immigration Northern League did even better than expected. In total, anti-establishment parties won about 55% of the vote.