ROME (Reuters) - Long divided along economic lines, Italy is now also politically cleft after Sunday’s elections, with the anti-elite 5-Star Movement triumphing in the underdeveloped south and the right predominating in the wealthy north.
Whoever ends up governing the country after the inconclusive March 4 ballot will not be able to ignore the gaping chasm, but will face deeply conflicting demands from the two halves of a fractured nation, and few funds to remedy the situation.
The split between the industrialized north and the deprived south has never been so stark and is likely to have profound implications for Italy and Europe for years to come.
“The south is moving beyond the point of governance,” said Lucio Caracciolo, co-founder of the MacroGeo think-tank and a member of the Italian Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Committee.
“The disparity between the north and the south is so great that I think it will eventually provoke some sort of geopolitical crisis in Italy. You are already beginning to see the facts on the ground,” he told Reuters.
The Mezzogiorno, or “noon” as the south is called in Italian, has lagged the rest of the country for decades, but the recent financial crisis has exacerbated the problem.
Its economy shrank 7.2 percent between 2001-2016, according to latest data, while Italy’s output grew some 1 percent over the same period and that of the European Union by 23.2 percent.
Unemployment in the south stands at almost 18 percent versus 6.6 percent in the north, with youth unemployment at 46.6 percent — more than double the level at the top of the country.
With 4.7 million Italians living in absolute poverty, the 5-Star has promised to introduce a monthly minimum income of up to 780 euros ($960) for the poor — a godsend in a country which offers no basic welfare for the jobless.
Although many analysts say heavily indebted Italy can ill-afford the plan, there is little doubt it convinced almost half of all Italy’s unemployed to vote for 5-Star, according to pollsters, with the party becoming the lodestone for the disaffected and disenfranchised.
This helped it become the largest single party nationwide and partly explains its unparalleled success in the south, which used to back mainstream center-left or center-right groups.
“People used to vote for established parties expecting to get something back, but instead we have witnessed the sack of the south,” said author Pino Aprile, who has written extensively about Italy’s southern woes and believes the north has received a disproportionately high amount of state funding for decades.
“Now people are putting their faith in this new party in the hope that it will finally do something, but it might be too late,” he told Reuters. “The situation down here is tragic.”
Five-Star won 76 out of 80 first-past-the-post seats in the lower house of parliament in Italy’s eight southern regions, winning almost 50 percent of the vote in Sicily and Campania.
By contrast, it picked up just three out of 90 first-past-the-post seats across six northern regions, including the wealthy Lombardy and Veneto, where the far-right League shone at the head of a center-right bloc.
The center-right’s main economic proposal was a flat tax of 23 percent — an attractive idea in the productive north but of little interest in the south, where the average annual wage in 2016 was barely 16,000 euros ($20,000), a salary which already falls into the 23-percent tax band.
Talks have yet to start on forming a new government, but the next coalition is bound to include either 5-Star or the League, which make up the two largest blocks of seats in parliament.
They could even try to work together, sharing a similarly iconoclastic approach to politics, but their flagship campaign pledges are mutually exclusive. Not only could Italy never afford both a universal wage and a flat tax, but the two measures would likely anger opposing voters.
Southerners would view a flat tax as a generous gift for their rich co-nationals, while the universal wage would be seen in the north as unjustifiable charity for the south, which has a reputation for laid-back living and rampant criminality.
“The flat tax in the south is a non starter, while a universal wage is culturally unacceptable for northerners. They would bristle at the idea of giving people money without working,” said Andrea Goldstein, head of the Nomisma think-tank.
Former Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo told Reuters that the Mezzogiorno needed “a business plan” rather than handouts, adding that “the problem of the south has become by far the number-one problem (for Italy).”
Italy’s eight southern regions all rank lower than 155th among 202 EU regions in a 2017 European Commission survey on the quality of public services, with five rating worse than 190th for corruption, highlighting a woeful state of governance.
The survey points to one of the south’s most glaring problems — its dire infrastructure. Tourists will see this next year if they try to visit Matera in Basilicata, which has been designated Europe’s 2019 cultural capital. Despite its fame, no railway or motorway has yet reached the historic city.
The lack of hope and opportunity has led to an exodus, with a net 716,000 people emigrating from the Mezzogiorno, mostly to the north with some going abroad, in the past 15 years, more than 70 percent of them aged 15-34, says Svimez, an industry group that advocates for southern Italy.
“Between now and 2065 it is estimated we will go from a population of 20 million to 15 million. That means 25 percent of Italians will live in 40 percent of its surface area,” Svimez chairman Adriano Giannola, told Reuters.
“We will just be a place for the old and for tourists,” he said. “We don’t have any time left. We need to react.”
Even if the inexperienced 5-Star lead the next government, they will struggle to reverse years of neglect, mismanagement and nepotism that have scarred the south.
“Southern Italy is a very important geopolitical region. It sits in the middle of the Mediterranean. The rest of Europe is aware of the problems and are worried by what they see,” said Caracciolo, the head of MacroGeo.
Additional reporting by Massimo Gaia and Mark Bendeich; Editing by Giles Elgood