Italy’s Bumpy Ride under Populist Government

Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Migration

Professor Anna Cento Bull, Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.

As widely predicted, the Italian political elections, held on 4 March 2018, ended with a situation of stalemate as no party or coalition of parties was able to secure a majority of seats in Parliament.  The ‘winners’ were the Five Star Movement (5SM), which secured 32.68% of the votes, and the centre-right coalition, which obtained 37% of the votes. The former, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in October 2009, was led by one of Grillo’s protégés, Luigi Di Maio. It is widely considered a populist and Eurosceptic party able to attract votes from all sides of the political spectrum on a platform of anti-corruption and anti-establishment (as well as anti-Euro). The latter included Silvio Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia (FI), and Matteo Salvini’ s Lega (formerly Lega Nord). One of the main novelties of the election results was the spectacular rise of the Lega, given that for the first time it managed to overcome Forza Italia, securing 17.35% of the votes against FI's 14% and making inroads in the central and southern regions. The other novelty was the decisive success of the 5SM in the southern regions. There is no doubt that the electorate rewarded the more radical parties, with southern voters attracted by the 5SM’s promise of a minimum income for all and northern voters lured by the Lega’s flagship policy of a ‘flat tax’ as low as 15%. The anti-immigration stance of both parties also proved popular with the electorate. Widespread feelings that Italy had been let down by her European partners, having to accept disproportionate numbers of migrants and refugees and being forced to adopt austerity measures which hampered growth and employment further contributed to the success of these parties.

The big question once the results were known was: would a coalition government be agreed on or would the country be plunged into fresh elections? After months of negotiations, the 5SM and the Lega agreed to form a government, led by a little-known university law professor, Giuseppe Conte, as its figurehead Prime Minister, but effectively steered by its two deputy prime ministers, Di Maio and Salvini. The formation of the new government was convoluted and even caused a political and constitutional crisis when the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, rejected the nomination for finance minister of Paolo Savona, a former industry minister who had become a fierce Eurosceptic, who argued that Italy should leave the Euro. Both Salvini and Di Maio protested loudly against this decision with the latter going as far as asking for the President’s impeachment. In the end, the two leaders backed down, nominating the more moderate Giovanni Tria as finance minister and ‘moving’ Savona to the less influential Ministry of European Affairs.

The controversies surrounding the formation of the government and the personal intervention by Mattarella epitomise the key issues facing Italy’s new rulers and the country as a whole. The two parties’ electoral promises, in fact, amount to considerable extra spending which would mean breaking the EU parameters set in the Stability and Growth Pact, preventing members of the Eurozone from exceeding established limits in spending and borrowing. If the new finance minister refuses to countenance breaking the rules, the government will have to introduce much more modest changes to tax and income levels, risking a backlash on the part of disillusioned voters. Thus the 5SM and the Lega took a gamble in forming a government.

This explains at least in part why Salvini, as Interior Minister, upped the ante on the immigration issue by announcing on the 11 June that he was closing all Italian ports, refusing admission to a rescue ship with 629 migrants on board. He then engaged in a very public spat with Malta and France, accusing them of refusing entry to migrants and leaving Italy saddled with an impossible task. Salvini is a very shrewd politician and his head-on collision with the EU and fellow Mediterranean countries on immigration is a calculated move in order to keep his popularity high through the use of highly visible gestures and verbal rhetoric, a strategy that the Lega Nord perfected with great skill ever since it was founded by Umberto Bossi. Furthermore, by prioritising immigration Salvini has shown himself to be at the helm of the government, relegating Conte and Di Maio to secondary figures. As most commentators have remarked, Salvini appears to be the real Prime Minister able to impose his agenda on a less experienced and less astute partner. According to many, he is bent on raising his party’s standing in the polls (as confirmed at the June local elections, which also marked a substantial loss of votes for the 5SM compared to the March elections). This will allow him in a year’s time to pull the plug from this coalition government, head to the polls and end up governing with his old-standing partners in a centre-right coalition dominated by his leadership.

By contrast, the 5SM has struggled to show dividends for its decision to go into alliance with Salvini’s Lega. While also anti-immigration, it nevertheless needs to distance itself from rightist policies, since part of its electorate is made up of left-leaning voters, who may decide to desert the movement in the future. Indeed, while the results of the June local elections were dismissed by Di Maio as irrelevant, they may be a harbinger of a wider trend to come. More ominously for a party which has made a trademark of its anti-corruption stance, a recent scandal in Rome has once again involved the 5SM-led Rome council and the mayor, Virginia Raggi. First elected in 2016, Raggi is not new to local scandals, but none of these proportions. Following her decision to go ahead with the construction of a new football stadium, on the 13 June a series of arrests were carried out on charges of corruption. Among those arrested was Luca Lanzalone, a lawyer very close to Grillo and Di Maio. An embarrassed Di Maio promised that ‘those who are guilty will pay for it’ and forced Lanzalone to resign from the utility company Acea, which he chaired. It is too early to understand the possible repercussions from this scandal but it is fair to say that the 5SM has already lost some of its lustre since forming the government.

So where is Italy heading? We will not know until the government shows its hand in relation to its tax and spending pre-electoral promises. Only then will it become clear whether its anti-EU stance will translate into defiance of the Growth and Stability Pact or whether it will continue to be played out mainly at the level of posturing and rhetoric.




Posted in: Democracy and voter preference, European politics, Migration


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