Italy: The government of change or a(nother) government to change?
Since 1946, the year when Italian citizens chose republic over the monarchy as their form of government, Italy saw 65 governments in 72 years, a symptom of political instability whose grassroots trace back in history. Due to its unique path, Italy has always represented a laboratory of political experiments with changing fortunes. Yet Italian politics, almost an incomprehensible equation for foreign observers, still reserves surprises. On the 5th and 6th of June, after three months of daily changes in the scenario of alliances, dirty political games and parties’ unscrupulous pursuit of the so-called poltrone (the seats in the government), the government coalition, formed between the 5 Star Movement and the League, obtained the vote of confidence in the Parliament. For the first time in the history, an all-around populist government made its way in the heart of Europe. Precisely in one of the six founding members of the European Union. But how did we come to this?
The turbulent months before the government formation
In the aftermath of the uncertain yet crucial elections of the 4th of March 2018, Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s League emerged as the two dominant political forces in Italy, receiving respectively 32% and 17% share of national votes. Contrastively, the Democratic Party, dominated by Matteo Renzi over the last years, interpreted the results as an unequivocal message by the Italian electorate that the party had to stay within the opposition ranks. This total submissiveness has been accompanied by their passive-aggressive slogan “Now it’s your turn, let’s see what you’re capable of”. Since the aftermath of the elections, however, Renzi has de facto maintained his feeble leadership over the party, despite declaring from the very first day that he would resign from party’s secretary, further exacerbating the internal divisions between his endorsers and his opponents. On the other hand, the first and the third most-voted parties run extensive rounds of negotiations, which strained Sergio Mattarella’s patience, the President of the Republic. It resembles a soap opera.
The Five Star Movement, the epitome of post-ideological politics, established have now established themselves as a constant in Italian politics. The left and the right wing coalitions, the other two blocs, could not and did not want to govern together, lacking the numbers to form a majority. Many doubted the compatibility between the political DNAs of the two populist parties. Matteo Salvini inherited the party’s leadership with a miserable 4% of votes in the 2013 elections, but has been progressively able to transform a secessionist party confined to northern Italy into a nationalist, xenophobic and anti-EU one. The gradual nationalisation of his party and the party’s name change from ‘Northern League’ into ‘League’ paid off. It made Salvini an appealing and trustworthy political ally in the eyes of the Five Stars. He has always represented an unsolvable political enigma of Italian politics, due to the difficulty of labelling it in a way or another. Despite numerous attempts, the party has successfully eluded being classified as neither right- or left-wing, thus managing to gain votes from many parts of the political spectrum. A Five Star elector could be a blue collar, an office worker or a doctor. The ‘movement’ has always displayed an ambiguous and, from time to time, contradicting set of policies, especially regarding immigration and the relation with the EU. A referendum to exit the Eurozone has been for years the warhorse of the party, which nevertheless has institutionalised itself and softened the traditional Eurosceptic tone during the electoral campaign.
The government of bad change
The original soul of the Five Star Movement was deeply progressive, and their frontline political struggles were the fight against the ruling elite’s corruption and its privileges, protective measures to counter poverty, more social justice and the reform of the judicial system. Throughout the years, however, it proved a shapeless political entity whose primary aim was to simply criticise the establishment, and not to build a concrete a political programme. However, the most recent electoral success gave it no excuse not to govern anymore. In politics, especially in Italy, ideals succumb to the lust for power. No one is free from it. The leadership of the Five Stars, therefore, accepted to come to negotiating terms with a fascist, racist and aggressive bully (Matteo Salvini), who recklessly gained consensus by triggering fear mongering among the people. Luigi di Maio and his close circle similarly exploited feelings of social discontent and resentment against past governments, run by swindlers such as Berlusconi and Renzi, who failed to both shift stagnant wages upward and decrease a steadily high unemployment rate. However, the inevitable price to pay by the Five Star-Movement for this alliance is that of being absorbed into a spiral of extreme right rhetoric and policies. Being a sponge which absorbs everything, the risk of losing its original political identity is very high.
The contract for government: “Italians first”
In what was announced to be the beginning of the Third Republic, the League and the Five Star Movement issued a joint document, named the “contract for the government of change. For the first time in the history of the Italian Republic, the future government parties dealt on single issues first, and then found an agreement on the allocation of the Cabinet’s portfolios after. The plan for government focuses on the reaffirmation of the national sovereignty, expressing its intention to re-negotiate the EU Treaties. Even more surprisingly, the document provided the complete abolition of all the EU economic sanctions against Russia. In the past, the leaders of both parties have indeed praised Russia’s repressive regime, expressing their sympathy towards Putin. Economics-wise, the outcome of the round of government consultations consisted of, besides reforming the current pension system, the League’s flat tax which favours the rich and the Five Stars’ citizenship income granted to the unemployed and the poor: two measures which deeply contradict each other. Official estimates predicted that these economic measures would entail public expenses amounting up to between 108,7 and 125,7 billions of euros, which would further increase the already immensely high Italian debt (140% to the PIL) and worsen even more its budget deficit. These economic proposals risk undermining the EU Community acquis and framework of rules, jeopardising the stability of the Eurozone and its very survival. As a result, a great a deal of hostility was shown by the authorities in Brussels urging Italians to know their place, such as the President of the EU Commission Jean Claude Juncker who stated that “Italians need to work more and be less corrupt”, blazingly pouring more oil on the fire. To make matters worse, Sergio Mattarella refused the nominee of Paolo Savona as Economic Minister due to his hard stance against the euro. The decision of the Italian Head of State, whose rationale was to “secure the savings of the Italians”, determined an unprecedented institutional crisis, with the Five Stars calling for Mattarella’s impeachment and Salvini declaring on Facebook “I’m very angry”. Furthermore, the political instability of the country brought about financial panic, and the spread, i.e. the differential between Italian and German bonds, skyrocketed by reaching a value of 300.
By repeating as a mantra “the establishment didn’t let us govern, they are against you voters, we side with the Italian people!” Salvini gained even more ground, as the League reached 27% in the popular vote, according to the public opinion polls. The risk of new elections with an immense win of an EU and immigration hardliner extreme right party became almost a reality. Despite all of this chaos, Giuseppe Conte, a former University Professor entirely alien to politics, was appointed as the new Prime Minister and this much (un)wanted government was created. As it rests upon a fragile political equilibrium, the people will soon realise that this government will be changed soon, and will not bring the change it promises. In addition, they will not learn any lesson from the effects of their vote on the markets, as wished by the EU Commission for Balance Gunther Oettinger. As the Greek economist and political activist Yanis Varoufakis put it, “nowadays, the role of the state is that protecting markets from the caprices of democracy”. Democracies have the right to protect their social arrangements, and when this right clashes with the requirements of the global economy, it is the latter that should give way”, the Harvard economist Dani Rodrik soberly states. The representatives of the EU institutions think the exact opposite. Italian people believe that their vote counts, and rightly so. Otherwise, they will feel more powerless and grow even more angry towards the EU. It might be too late for Italian citizens, as everywhere else in Europe, to gain back their national democracy. But Italians, no matter how deplorable their elected are, are not willing to take lesson from the establishment. And they deserve some respect.