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Has populism failed in Italy?

Leader of Lega Nord party Matteo Salvini votes in March. Credit: Getty

Leader of Lega Nord party Matteo Salvini votes in March. Credit: Getty

May 22, 2018   4 mins

After two months of negotiations, Italy’s new government is finally coming together. The Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, has had the difficult task of herding several cats into a viable government, which is now a coalition of two populist parties, the Five Star Movement (5SM) and the League (is no longer prefixed with ‘Northern’). 5SM was the largest party, while the League was the dominant element in a right-wing coalition of Forza Italia and the tiny neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia.

This coalition permutation has come to pass because the centre left Democratic Party’s former leader, Matteo Renzi, refused to countenance a coalition with 5SM, and Forza Italia deputies eased aside Berlusconi, enabling 5SM to partner with the League. They need Forza’s tacit support in parliament.

But neither the League leader, 45-year-old Matteo Salvini, nor 5SM’s 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio wanted to be prime minister, at least not this time around. Instead, it looks like it’s going to be the lawyer, professor and political newcomer, Giuseppe Conte, who will have to be approved by the president along with cabinet ministers and a German-style written coalition agreement which is still a work in progress.

Its various iterations have included such things as an absolute right to self defence, a ban on freemasons in politics, and defence of ‘food sovereignty’. One shared constant is a desire to crack down on corruption, though it is striking that the coalition agreement fails to mention the concentrated power of Silvio Berlusconi’s Mediaset empire.

Since few Italian governments in the previous seven decades have completed even half of their five-year terms, what is most likely to go wrong with this insurgent one, even though today at least six in ten Italians approve of it?

In terms of governing experience, the League has the edge since it has been in previous coalitions (usually with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia) in 1994-95, 2001-06, and 2008-11. Despite being intimately associated with Berlusconi’s pro-business agenda, the League has managed to retain its protest vote image while shifting its focus from euroscepticism to strident hostility towards migrants.

As a governing party, the League has not been immune from the corruption it routinely ascribes to the mafia-dominated Mezzogiorno, since in 2012 its former leader, Umberto Bossi, and the League’s treasurer were jailed for expenses related embezzlement.

Only founded in 2009, so far 5SM has only misgoverned Rome and Turin, though it has also sharpened its anti-migrant rhetoric in recent years

The two parties also have very different bases of support. Most League supporters describe themselves as being on the Right, while 25% of 5SM supporters say they are on the Left, with a further 40% self-identifying as political agnostics.

As one might expect, a party founded so that ‘Padania’ could breakaway from Italy – though it has now accepted a form of federalism – is strong in the North, while 5SM is popular in the South, where it promises a universal basic wage of €780 for the unemployed for up to two years.

When combined with restoration of the lower pension age before it was raised by the Fornero Law, and the League’s insistence on two marginal flat tax rates of 15 and 20%, the universal basic income will leave a €100 billion hole in Italy’s budget.

Apart from unleashing the ‘animal spirits’ of the Italian economy, a promised crackdown on tax evasion – albeit coupled with a fiscal amnesty for tax debtors fallen on hard times – is supposed to prevent what would otherwise certainly involve a breach of the EU’s 3% fiscal deficit ceiling. My understanding is, though, that the new government will not now provoke an immediate clash with the EU, after dropping plans to write off €250 billion in debt held in Eurobonds. There will be less all out war with the ECB/EU à la Greque, more a series of intermittent crises, and not just about the Eurozone, but also regarding sanctions against Russian since both Italian parties are formal affiliates of Putin’s United Russia.

Like many northern populist parties there is a strong dose of identity politics, notably through a ban on Arabic sermons and mandatory polls on building new mosques.

What is clear, is that internal relations will not be easy. 5SM want an immediate halt to the new TAV high speed Turin-Lyons rail link, even though the work has started and €2 billion will be lost in penalty payments, and the scheme is enthusiastically supported by Salvini.

More seriously, the League wants to repatriate half a million African and Arab migrants whose asylum applications have been rejected, something many liberal-minded 5SM supporters oppose, despite the public mood becoming a great deal cooler towards migration (except for Mafiosi who have turned it into a €6 billion criminal enterprise). As with many northern populist parties their platform has a strong dose of identity politics, notably through a ban on Arabic sermons and mandatory polls on building new mosques.

This is what you get when populism has failed

Being avowedly neither Left nor Right may appeal on the campaign trail, but that’s not going to work in government and 5SM may have to adopt League policies of which many of their own supporters disapprove. That is unlikely to be the case with the League itself, which probably explains why its polling support is steadily increasing, while 5SM’s is static. And what happens once 5SM is the government to its antipathy to politics by proxy (elected deputies) to which end it created the online platform Rousseau? For not only are 5SM candidates for public office nominated and selected by online members, but the Lex Inscriti web page enables 5SM supporters to propose and vote on new laws which are then voted on in parliament.

Despite all the hype – much of it wishful thinking by naïve outsiders – surrounding Italy’s new populist government, what do we actually see? The dominant coalition partner has connived at the free-market policies and the corruption of Berlusconi for years. The League is no more or less immune to the ambient sleaze than anyone else. Indeed one might plausibly argue that this is what you get when populism has failed, since surely Silvio Berlusconi himself was like John the Baptist for Donald Trump, parlaying billionaire media celebrity (and a TV empire) into political power via his AC Milan football supporters club.

For sure, the new kids on the block can call themselves a ‘government for change’ but Italy is a complex place, where one great writer immortalised the phrase “for everything to stay the same, everything must change”. This is likely to be the coalition’s epitaph and the coalition won’t last either.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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