Steven Forti – Italy: a populist laboratory

Steven Forti tries to identify where the new coalition government in Italy is going.

Steven Forti is Researcher at the Instituto de História Contemporânea of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa and Professor at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona.

Originally published in Spanish at CTXT

Translated by BRAVE NEW EUROPE

Italy is a beautiful and strange nation. It is difficult to understand and sometimes inexplicable, even for the Italians themselves. Last week we had further proof of this. When everything seemed politically on the verge of collapse, with an overwhelming institutional crisis, a solution was found. And, to a certain extent, we have returned to the starting point, as if nothing had happened. Which doesn’t mean everything’s settled. To the contrary: a crisis has been closed and a new phase has opened where all the old certainties have disappeared. New times are beginning, possibly wild times, as Los Ilegales sang a few decades ago.

Mattarella’s bluff

Let’s go back a few days. After the so-called “government contract” between the 5 Star Movement (M5E) and the League had been concluded, not without tension, on 23 May the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, commissioned Giuseppe Conte – a lawyer and law professor close to the grillini (5 Star Movement), a colourless, totally unknown, ex-centre-left voter (according to him), to form a new executive. Within the exceptional nature of the situation – almost three months of blockade; an unprecedented populist alliance; a leader of the government without political autonomy and with a distorted educational record – it seemed that Italy was in some way heading towards the resolution of its political crisis.

Four days later, on May 27th, everything blew up: Conte resigned from his mandate because of Mattarella’s veto – a prerogative granted him by the Constitution – to the naming of a Eurosceptic minister, Paolo Savona, for the Economy portfolio. In less than an hour, the leader of the M5E, Luigi Di Maio, demanded the impeachment of the President of the Republic; the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini called for new elections, attacking the markets and the Germans who want to “colonise” Italy. The Democratic Party (PD), which disappeared from the political map after the March 4 election disaster, proposed a Republican Front in defence of Mattarella, which, in the meantime, asked former IMF economist Carlo Cottarelli to form a new technocrat government, a proposal with little chance of success. This was the beginning of an institutional crisis never seen before in the history of the Transalpine Republic. Italy was approaching the abyss by leaps and bounds, as explained here.

72 hours later there was another unexpected turnaround. The League and M5E reopened negotiations for the formation of a government, Mattarella again commissioned Conte and he was sworn in the following day, June 1, together with all the ministers. Finally, on June 5 and 6, the new executive won the vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, obtaining the support, beyond the two parties that make up the government, also of four independent deputies and the abstention of the ultra-right party Brothers of Italy. Crisis resolved and everyone (or almost everyone) happy. But what happened? Why did Di Maio sit down again with Mattarella after he had publically called for his impeachment? Why did Salvini recoil from the proposal to repeat the elections, when all the polls predicted a result unimaginable only a few months ago (25-27%)? And why did the President of the Republic retreat?

Well, because everybody won something. Or, depending on how you look at it, they understood that otherwise they could have lost a lot. Di Maio, who has demonstrated his inexperience in crisis management, was aware that in a new election the M5E would have suffered. So he fell on his knees and asked Salvini to sit down again to seek a solution. The leader of the League, who had won a lot of political capital, saw that he could ask for what he wanted: the grillini, who had won double his votes (32.7% versus 17.4%), would have accepted anything in order to avoid a repeat election. Salvini understood that it was not necessary to give up on forming a government completely, to deal with the attacks of the markets and to decide what to do with the Berlusconi ally, with whom he governs in the northern regions. Better to postpone the decision, govern now and gradually eat what is left of Forza Italia.

And Mattarella? Possibly the veto of Savona and the appointment of Cottarelli was a bluff to pressure the duo Di Maio-Salvini, forcing them to understand who is in charge and that there are some red lines that cannot be crossed. It was a very risky move, but it didn’t entirely backfire. At least he has managed to get Savona not to be in charge of the economy, to get some ministers of the establishment (Moavero Milanesi, Tria) in the executive, and to get Conte, Salvini and Di Maio to repeat like parrots that they had never thought of leaving the EU and the Euro. For Mattarella, the institutional crisis that had opened up and a more than likely victory of the League and 5-star in a new election, with capital fleeing Italy, was a much worse prospect.

More than a government of “change”, as has been repeated many times over, that of Conte is clearly right-wing. Or rather, of a new right in transformation, whereby we do not yet know what it will become. A national populist government that brings together some old acquaintances and a few unknown young people. A government in which there are only five women, three of them in ministries without portfolios. A government in which the two formations have distributed their positions in the same way as in the much criticised First and Second Republics, one for you and one for me, choosing, piquantly, people with CVs of dubious quality or directly non-existent in ministries that would need other people with other training.

The incredible army of Brancaleone

Conte is a puppet of the two vice-presidents, Salvini, who has reserved the portfolio of Minister of the Interior for himself, and Di Maio, who secured the post of Economic Development and Work. The grillini claimed nine ministries, the League seven, although we must add an eighth because the Eurosceptic Savona was appointed minister (without portfolio) for European Affairs, is a man from Salvini. There are two independents: Enzo Moavero Milanesi (Foreign Affairs), a close collaborator of the EU and in the Italian government in 2011-2013 of the much criticised “Eurocrat” Mario Monti. Then there is Giovanni Tria (Economy), who already collaborated with the Berlusconi right wing. Add pro-life and anti-conciliar Catholic Lorenzo Fontana for the new ministry for the Disabled and Family, who has already demonstrated his ideas by stating that “gay families do not exist”; as well as the ultra Gianmarco Centinaio (Agriculture) who in the last legislative period shouted in the Senate to the then president of the Upper House, Pietro Grasso, “you are infamous and a lump of shit”; or to Giulia Bongiorno (Public Administration), former deputy of the post-fascist National Alliance in 2006-2008, famous for having defended Giulio Andreotti in the trials for his relations with the mafia. In short, progressives are conspicuous by their absence.

More: the 5 Stars named Giulia Grillo as Health Minister – who is not a relative of the comedian Beppe Grillo – a defender of the anti-vaccine movement; in Culture and Tourism a manager of the private schools, Alberto Bonisoli; and in the ministry (without portfolio) for the South to the passionate Barbara Lezzi, known for wearing a tin opener – yes, a tin opener – in Parliament. The League selected a gym teacher and basketball coach, Marco Bussetti, for Education. The others are men from Salvini (Giorgetti, Stefani) or Di Maio (Bonafede, Toninelli, Fraccaro), with the exception of two independent M5E quota holders, the professor of security and international cooperation at Link University, Elisabetta Trenta (Defence) and the Carabinieri general famous for his investigations against organised crime in Campania, Sergio Costa (Environment). Come on, what can go wrong?

Programmatic confusion and propaganda

Now, what will this army Brancaleone do in the coming months? The “contract” of government is the sum of the electoral programmes of the 5 Stars and the League, which responds to different demands. There is no strategic line. The programmatic confusion reigns supreme between the much-vaunted standard income of grillini citizenship – which in the final version has become a kind of time-limited unemployment benefit for which it is not necessary to have worked previously – and the Flat Tax, in reality a two tiered tax with 15% and 20% tax rates, defended by both two parties: a tax system with a taste of Reagan tax deregulation that is applied only in Russia, Serbia and other Eastern countries.

The other major objectives of the new government are, on the one hand, the repeal of the Fornero law, which in itself would not be bad news since its application, during the Monti government, led to a significant reduction in pensions; and, on the other hand, the closure of borders and the expulsion of nearly half a million undocumented immigrants, as well as a tightening of security policies, such as the permission for police officers to use Taser’s weapons – denounced by Amnesty International – or a law of “legitimate defence”. Benefitting from this, with the acquiescence of the 5 Stars, is obviously Salvini, who continues in a never ending electoral campaign in the style of Trump, in the squares, in the media, and in the social networks. It is Salvini who determines political policy, as long as the 5 Stars, even if they do not admit it, follow him crestfallen.

The leader of the League has already staged his first diplomatic crisis after declaring that Tunisia is sending solely prisoners to Italy, while claiming that the NGOs working in the Mediterranean are nothing more than “traffickers of human beings” who get rich at the expense of the Italians. As far as the international sphere is concerned, he gave an idea of who his allies will be: it did not take him a day to call the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orbán, with whom he wants to work “to change the European Union” and he has received the congratulations of Marine Le Pen and Steve Bannon – who has recently shown himself to be very popular in Rome – not to mention the support of the Austrian government, made up of the conservatives of the ÖVP and the ultra-right wing of the FPÖ, which now considers Italy “a strong ally”.

What is the problem with this programme, besides being hyper-right-wing? Quite simply, that it is unfeasible. It has been estimated that between 80 and 100 billion euros would be needed to implement it. Where do Salvini and DiMaio plan to find them? It is not insignificant to remember that Italy has the third largest public debt in the world, after the United States and Japan: 2.263 billion euros (double the Spanish debt), 132% of GDP, a third of which is in foreign hands. While the economy has remained stagnant since the early 2000s, it has grown by 1.5% in 2017 and is expected to grow by just 1.1% in 2018. Furthermore, it should not be ruled out that the speculation, which has put the country in a bind last week, may regain momentum.

So most likely there will be a lot of noise, but less action. Above all, the propaganda will dominate and infect everything: declarations that will not stop, in the style of the Trump tweets; laws or projects that will only be proposed announced, but not be passed. Clearly there will be an unprecedented authoritarian shift in terms of immigration – although the mass expulsions promised by Salvini cannot be carried out – and security. Will it then be a failure? On the contrary, this policy could go well, especially for the League, but also for the 5 Stars. We have already seen, also in these parts of the world, that propaganda, if it is suffocating, is sometimes enough to maintain power and to maintain or even broaden consensus. Especially if there is no organised opposition and with a clear project.

A new populism in government

To the left of the PD there has been nothing for a decade, except the mayor of Naples, Luigi De Magistris, who is trying to launch a national and also European project (DiEM 25)  together with  Yanis Varoufakis. And the social democrats? The party has almost completely collapsed in recent years and Renzi has no intention of relinquishing the leadership. Once again, decisions have been postponed pending a congress to be held in November, where the only possible ace in the hole, so to speak, is the ex-premier Paolo Gentiloni. There is no cultural identity, no organisational model, and the number of party members is declining. And, above all, there is a lack of analysis of the results of election fiasco in March: the reasons for the defeat of the left have not been elaborated and the demands for the protection of citizens have not been understood. Either the PD adopts policies similar to the British Labour Party of Corbyn and gets its act together or it will sooner rather than later become a residual, like the French Socialist Party.

One question remains: how long will the Conte government last? There are those who do not rule out the possibility that it may reach the end of the parliamentary period. The weakness of the oppositions is an element favouring this possibility, as well as the traditional transformationism of the political elites: many Berlusconians could soon climb onto the winning chariot, while the Brothers of Italy, the ultra-right-wing formation led by Giorgia Meloni, could move from abstention to support for the executive. However, in a year’s time the European elections will be held and the contradictions between the potentially conflicting bases of the League and the M5E could explode. It will also depend on the struggle of egos between Salvini and Di Maio.

Come what may, Italy once again proves itself to be a laboratory. In the 1920s it was the cradle of fascism, an experiment that was exported throughout Europe. In the Nineties, it created the poitical-party-company with Berlusconi. The time has now come for this new populism, or rather for this unprecedented transformation of populism of the third millennium, where the “people” end up blinded and mixed up. 5 Stars and the League are in this together. It is a strange result of the previous Italian populisms: Berlusconi telepopulism, Grillo cyberpopulism and Renzian government populism. A populism of government, with a programme that is an amalgam of communitarianism and social protection in a post-modern version. Italy is not the first, really. Look at Hungary and Poland. But it is the first in one of the founding states of the European Union. New times, yes. Wild times, almost certainly.

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