The very notion of "political instability" is baked into democratic life. If you want something predictable and unchanging you can have a 17th-century French monarchy or 21st-century Chinese autocracy. Still, a look around European parliamentary democracies these days shows a particularly bumpy road ahead, as ideologies and party machinations are being side-swiped by an accelerating wave of populism throughout the West. Over the past 24 hours, we have seen the tumult playing out in two of Europe's key nations: Italy and Germany.
More than five months after elections that left Germany's two biggest parties badly bruised, Angela Merkel's conservatives and the Social Democrats (SPD) will finally be able to form another grand coalition government (or a GroKo, as the Germans call it). On Sunday, two-thirds of the SPD's party members approved the coalition agreement, removing the last hurdle standing in the path of what the party's candidate in the election, Martin Schultz, had vowed not to do: enter another government led by Angela Merkel. But the poor results from both parties and the rise of the far-right formation Alternative für Deutschland left the Chancellor with little room for maneuver, especially after she failed to bring together the Greens and the Free Democrats (FDP), two almost polar opposites.
Neither Merkel nor the SPD wanted to risk another election and a potentially even worse result. As political columnist Majid Sattar writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, there was "no howl of triumph" after the SPD party members' vote, and "even among the two-thirds who voted in favor" of the coalition agreement, "there are many doubters who thought the SPD was in a fatal dilemma and basically only voted yes because they saw it as a life-prolonging measure."
Now, after going through its longest political crisis since World War II, Germany finally has a government, but just how governable the country will be is another matter.
In Italy, meanwhile, lack of governability and more turmoil are the only certainties after Sunday's election, which saw the spectacular rise of the eurosceptic Five Star Movement and the anti-immigration Northern League, an ally of Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia. But despite their strong showing, none of these insurgent parties has reached the 40% threshold which, in Italy, allows to form a government outright, with the Five Star Movement coming first at 32%, and the Northern League-Forza Italia alliance around 37%.
La Repubblica — March 5, 2018
"It is a political earthquake, without a doubt," said editor Luciano Fontana of the Milan-based Corriere della Sera daily. "It sweeps away coalitions that have been central to Italy's recent ruling legislatures." The center-left Democratic party has suffered a stinging defeat, as former wunderkind Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is reportedly mulling resignation.
The strongest cards, Fontana notes, are in the hands of two largely untested political leaders: the Five Star's Luigi Di Maio and the Northern League's Matteo Salvini. They share in common a growing disdain for the European Union, and skills at playing to the populist anger rising around the country. Yet, each has vowed never to rule with the other. We only need to look again over to Germany, where Martin Schultz once said the same thing.