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Italian populist parties just defeated the political establishment. Here’s why.

Italians went to the polls Sunday in Europe's latest test of the political strength of populist and right-wing parties. The two biggest winners -- the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League -- earned better than 50 percent of the vote. William Brangham and special correspondent Christopher Livesay discuss how the election reshapes Italy’s political landscape.

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  • William Brangham:

    Italians went to the polls yesterday in Europe's latest test of the political strength of populist and right-wing parties across the continent.

    While Angela Merkel in Germany and Emmanuel Macron in France survived that wave last year, in Italy yesterday, centrist and left-leaning parties were drowned by it. The two biggest winners, the populist Five Star Movement and the right-wing League, earned better than 50 percent of the vote, while the establishment political parties, those that have mostly held power in Italy since World War II, lost big.

    Special correspondent Christopher Livesay joins me now from Rome to help us sift through the results.

    So, Chris, this seems a pretty dramatic upending of the traditional left-right parties that we think of in Italy. Can you tell us, who came out on top, who took it on the chin?

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Well, as you mentioned, populists really came out on top.

    The biggest among the populists is a relatively young party. It's called the Five Star Movement. They were born about nine years ago. The founder was a stand-up comic, and they are mostly railing against political corruption and a tepid economy, high unemployment, namely youth unemployment.

    Over the last nine years, youth unemployment has actually gone above 40 percent at times. It's still scandalously high, in the 30s, so that's what they were really riding on, and they have rode it all the way to the head of the polls. They came out with over 30 percent. The leader of their party is a young man, only 31 years old, a college dropout by the name of Luigi Di Maio. He has scant political experience, but these days, that's a feature and not a bug.

    He's seen by his followers, at least, as being untainted by what they see as corrupt traditional Italian politics. But perhaps even more surprising than the rise of the Five Star Movement is the rise of another, more radical populist party called the League.

    Their main platform is that they are against migration. In fact, they want to deport approximately 600,000 migrants who have come to Italy in the last few years. So these two populist parties with ideas that many would consider to be radical edged out the traditional parties.

    So the center-right party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, they did really poorly, and this probably sounds the death knell for his very long political career. He's 81 years old now. It's hard to imagine him making a comeback at this point.

    And then, of course, the outgoing ruling party, the center-left Democratic Party, they came away with less than 20 percent, so they took a real beating.

  • William Brangham:

    Given that we saw Merkel and Macron both be able to hold back this sort of populist anti-immigrant tide, now we have seen the opposite in Italy. What does that mean for the rest of the continent?

  • Christopher Livesay:

    So, this result should really be a wakeup call, I think, to the rest of Europe.

    I mean, the fact that this party, the League, could really grow as much as it has in recent years is really phenomenal. It used to be something of a fringe party that only had a strong following in the north. So I think, you know, it's a wakeup call to the rest of Europe, at this point, absolutely.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, special correspondent Christopher Livesay, thank you so much.

  • Christopher Livesay:

    Thanks for having me.

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