MILAN, ITALY - MARCH 04:  A ballot paper with the symbol of the Lega Nord Party is displayed during the counting of ballot papers during the 2018 general election on March 4, 2018 in Milan, Italy. The economy and immigration are key factors in the 2018 Italian General Election after parliament was dissolved in December 2017.  Campaigning on the right are Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia teaming up with Matteo Salvini of the Eurosceptic Lega. While on the centre-left is Mario Renzi, leader of the Democratic Party.  Challenging both camps is the leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio.  (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)
Three reasons why Italy's election matters
01:18 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, and professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Follow her on Twitter: @ruthbenghiat. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN  — 

Italy’s elections may have ended in a political deadlock – no one party or alliance gained the 40% necessary to have an absolute Parliamentary majority – but the projected results of the vote signal that sweeping changes are on the horizon, changes that don’t bode well for liberal democracy.

The governing center-left Democratic Party received just 19% of Italians’ votes (a historic low) while anti-EU, populist and far-right parties like the Five Star Movement and the rabidly anti-immigrant League did very well (32% and 17.5%, respectively).

That former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party (14%) are now seen as moderate shows how far the country that had Western Europe’s most robust political left for a century has shifted to the right.

As with other countries that have started down this anti-liberal path – including the US – economic anxiety appears to have been a major factor.

Shockingly, a third of Italy’s youth are unemployed – nearly twice the EU average – and there is high public debt, two indexes of a sluggish economy.

But the country’s economy has actually improved under five years of Democratic Party leadership: industrial productivity is up 4.9% and banks are more stable.

Yet many did not see how this directly benefited the average person, and the Democrats had no plan that competed with the universal basic income and subsidy schemes that Five Star and Forza Italia floated (without saying how they would fund them). It’s telling that the south of Italy, which traditionally has among the highest unemployment in the nation, voted overwhelmingly for the Five Star movement.

Yet perceptions matter as much as realities in populist politics. Economics was only part of the reason Italians made Five Star the biggest single victor of this election.

Founded in 2009 by the former comic Beppe Grillo and internet entrepreneur Gianroberto Casaleggio, Five Star’s eclectic mix of support for environmentalism, Euroskepticism, Internet-based direct democracy and government transparency seemed fresh and appealing, as did the idea that they would refuse to ally with anyone else to get to power.

This was a protest vote against establishment parties seen to lack a vision for Italy’s future.

That purist isolationism will be the first of Five Star’s principles to be sacrificed if they want to hold power. Five Star will probably govern together with a right-center coalition that includes the League and Forza Italia. Whether or not the Democrats are included in the mix, those worried about rising right-wing violence in Italy won’t feel better any time soon.

The other big winner of this election is the League’s head, Matteo Salvini, who is the best advertisement for why racial anxieties mattered as much as economic ones in this election.

Every non-center left candidate talked about what’d they do to the 500,000-600,000 immigrants that in the last five years have arrived in Italy (a front line of the migrant crisis due to its abundant coastlines and proximity to North Africa.)

Berlusconi says he’ll deport them, and send soldiers into the streets to help the police.

Salvini upped the ante, saying that Italy needs a “mass cleansing, street by street, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Both Berlusconi and Salvini highlighted the recent gruesome case of a Nigerian immigrant, who killed and dismembered a young Italian woman as paradigmatic of criminality they say is threatening Italy, while failing to condemn the drive-by shooting of six Africans in Macerata by a right-wing extremist, Luca Traini, who explicitly said he was taking revenge.

Salvini has been tireless in spouting anti-immigrant rhetoric over the past two years. He’s called for segregated buses “for the Milanese” and for “controlled ethnic cleansing” of immigrants.

In true populist fashion, his campaign materials billed him as the arbiter of a revolution of common sense. More jobs, more safety for our children, fewer immigrants around, lower taxes – all of these promises have paid off for Salvini.

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    It is unfortunate that this dangerous individual is already being glamorized in the press as Italy’s newest political star and a charismatic substitute for the 81-year-old Berlusconi. I can already see Salvini being positioned as Europe’s “bad boy” of politics due to his pierced ear (who cares?) and “complicated love life” (a series of high-profile romantic relationships).

    Yet violence of the type he’s preaching is never acceptable. Will he and his current girlfriend, a model and television presenter, clean up the mess of the victims of his mass cleansing? Not likely.

    It’s worth noting that Salvini, like the Five Star politicians, admires Vladimir Putin, and loves to be photographed with the stars of the international right, from Hungarian President Viktor Orbán to Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing Front National in France, and our own President, Donald Trump.

    Whatever the new government’s final composition, this vote shows that Italy, birthplace of the original fascist movement founded by Benito Mussolini, has decided to privilege its rightist rather than leftist roots and identity.