Though Italy is the eighth largest economy in the world – and the fourth largest in the EU – the southern European state has been steadily declining in geopolitical importance for the past decade. In just eight months, the people of Italy will likely head back to the polls in another general election. Now more than ever, there is a real possibility of the nation choosing a different direction. Unlike many other countries that have seen a rise in eurosceptic movements on the right of the political spectrum, Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) is openly populist – yet also plants itself in the center. Its policies on immigration resemble the likes of Farage or Le Pen, yet M5S’ stance on the environment and welfare sits on the left.

Back in December 2016, a constitutional referendum was billed to be a turning point in Italian history. Matteo Renzi, the then 56th Prime Minister, put forward reforms that would decrease the powers of the Senate. The Senate (the upper house) currently has as much power as the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house). Renzi wished to cut down the size and power of the senators in a bid to make the passing of legislation smoother. But the vote ultimately failed by a large margin, prompting Renzi to resign as leader of the Democratic Party. The proposed reforms had the narrative of making the country’s politics less bureaucratic, but the Italian people saw this as an attempted power-grab.

At the beginning of this year, large Italian banks were set to implode due to issuing bad loans. Debt was mounting, and it seemed like the Eurozone was tiptoeing towards yet another economic crisis. On 24 June, the Cabinet conducted an emergency meeting to start liquidating Banca Popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. Intesa Sanpaolo, the country’s largest retail bank, acquired the failing banks’ positive assets while the government provided a boost of 5.6 billion euros. Along with this, the Italian government made ready another 12 billion euros should Intesa need it for damage control. Altogether, 17 billion euros in government guarantees amounted to three times the original estimation for recapitalization, amounting to a very large public bailout.

With another major crisis averted – for the time being – the public purse strings have inevitably been tightened. The budget deficit will be cut by 3.4 billion euros in order to rein in the country’s debt – and keep displeased onlookers in the European Union reassured. This method of sacrificing taxpayers’ money to keep things afloat has became synonymous with the southern European country. There is massive youth unemployment in Italy and across the region, and politicians are seen to merely ‘kick the can down the road’ rather than make the necessary policy changes.

Populist opportunity

This lack of vision (and in turn prosperity) in Italy has left the door wide open for populist ideas, which the Five Star Movement (M5S) have used to their benefit. They are, for instance, the only mainstream party that is offering a vote on eurozone membership, though they have recently claimed it would only be a last resort. The results are impressive: the latest general election poll puts M5S, a new party, at 25.7% and the governing Democratic Party at 26.2%.

Former waiter Luigi Di Maio has recently been positioned to take over from 69 year old party leader and once comedian Beppe Grillo. At just 31, young Di Maio presents a calmer and more serious tone for the party’s positions. He began to rise five years ago while he was studying for a law degree at the University of Naples. Di Maio was a website designer at the time, but chose a different path and fought his way up to Deputy Leader of the party in 2013 – making him the youngest person in the lower house aged 26. One topic that Di Maio is campaigning on is his disapproval for the way Renzi has handled waves of migration. Since there are now more stringent restrictions in Greece, Italy has become the first stop for migrants leaving Libya – a topic that is becoming increasingly salient for Italian voters.

When former Prime Minister Renzi resigned immediately after his defeat in late 2016, President Sergio Mattarella asked Renzi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Paolo Gentiloni to form a new government. But Gentiloni has lead the country (and the Democratic Party) on an uneventful path, and Renzi has now made a return and will again be contending for the role of Prime Minister. He made the comeback when he was barely six months out of the seat as Secretary of the Democratic Party; indicating the party’s membership hasn’t lost any love for him.

The general elections are likely to be held in May 2018. This gives both M5S and the Democratic Party enough time to prepare their visions for a country where there is a very tangible disillusionment with politics. With just 0.5% separating the two parties in the polls, the Democratic Party appears to be on the back foot. The populist-cum-centrist M5S has bulldozed onto the political scene in just a few short years, and is already giving the governing party a solid challenge. And while everything is still very much up for grabs, it is clear that the majority of Italians want one thing: change.