On Monday I was in Verona with some Italian colleagues and we were eating lunch in a restaurant. We argued about President Mattarella’s action and the political crisis which it had provoked. One friend declared he would never vote again: ‘It’s pointless’. Another said, everyone had been proved to be rubbish, so – even though he hadn’t voted for them – let the League and the 5 Star Movement have their turn as well. The owner of the restaurant joined in, saying the country was corrupt and the elites were ruining everything. Everyone was on their high horse. By evening, there were facebook groups on either side of the divide meme-ing it out. Some of the bitterest were wishing that President Mattarella – whose brother had been killed by the Mafia – a similar fate. While others were encouraging people to telephone the Colle – the official residence of the President – to express their support.
It’s very easy to look at the state of Italian politics and fall into the cliches about the Bel Paese, its corruption, and ungovernability. But let’s begin by getting some facts straight.
Matteo Renzi’s government fell in December 2017 after a referendum on electoral reform – the umpteenth to create stability, essentially by gifting a working majority to the largest minority – was defeated. The referendum had become a vote of confidence in Renzi’s government after some bone-headed posturing on his part. His government was itself a coalition, following a series of technical governments which succeeded the 2013 general election in which no one had won a workable majority.
The referendum failed; Renzi resigned; yet another interim technical government was formed and the new election was set for March 4. The results provided substantial gains for the far-right League – the former secessionist Northern League – and the 5 Star Movement (MS5) as well as the collapse of the more ‘traditional’ parties the center-left Democratic Party (PD) – led by Renzi – and the Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia.*
But again no party had a working majority and the two main winners – although both populists – derive their popularity from very different sources. The League – led by Matteo Salvini – is popular in the prosperous north, is anti-Europe and indulges in not so much dog whistle as foghorn racism. Several years ago, Italy’s first black cabinet minister Cécile Kyenge was compared to an orangutan by a senior League politician and they are rabidly anti-immigrant.
The Five Star Movement – started by comedian Beppe Grillo and now led by Luigi di Maio – won much of its support from the poorer south of Italy and derives much of its support from the disaffected of the left. 17% of its new voters at the last election had voted for the PD in 2013. The most natural political solution would have been a PD/M5S coalition, but Renzi – despite having announced his intention to resign – in yet another demonstration of his narcissistic vandalism – also delayed his resignation long enough to put the kibosh on any chance of a pact between the parties. On the other side, the League and its centre right partners simply didn’t have the numbers. And so M5S and the League became partners, hammering out legislative proposals and a power-sharing scheme with both di Maio or Salvini ruling themselves out of the role of Prime Minister.
At this stage, the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, becomes a key figure. As head of state, it is the President who asks a political leader to suggest a prime minister and with that prime minister, it is also the President who names ministers, following or resisting suggestions by the party or coalition destined for power. On Sunday, following President Mattarella’s resistance to the appointment of Professor Paolo Savona as the finance minister, the Prime Minister-designate Giuseppe Conte renounced his intention to be Prime Minister. President Mattarella argued that he was defending the Italian constitution. Savona is a eurosceptic and anti-German. He has called for a plan B to be prepared in secret, in order to leave the Eurozone and it is this which rendered him unacceptable to Mattarella.
There are problems with what has happened.
First of all, democracy is simply and visibly not working in Italy. Votes are cast and then governments sit but the two seem unrelated. Hence, my lunch-mates wondering whether they’ll bother next time. Plus, tactically it plays into the hands of the anti-establishment rhetoric of both populist parties. M5S and the League can cast Mattarella as an establishment shill who didn’t help matters by then naming Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF man to become Prime Minister in the run up to the next elections, which will take place in the Autumn. A cautious and competent man, certainly, but Italy is in a crisis and now Di Maio is calling for the impeachment of Mattarella. It is an impossible demand. It was Conte who withdrew; not Mattarella. And Mattarella is not only within his rights to not name a minister if he has doubts, it is his sworn duty to do so.
Just to make things more complicated, there are now rumours of betrayals and backroom dealing. There’s a very good chance that Mattarella was essentially trapped. Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, was intransigent when it came to the standoff and might have intentionally provoked it. His party was the smaller of the two winners and so has most to gain by going back to the ballot box; this time running on an overtly anti-Europe ticket – a topic which wasn’t actually an issue in the electoral campaign, but which can now by hyped with all the old vigour of the party’s secessionist roots.
Another beneficiary of the crisis is Silvio Berlusconi who is now eligible to run for Prime Minister, having been barred because of his previous convictions. Berlusconi has his heart set on a final hurrah to wipe away the disgrace of his bunga-bunga influenced exit. Another election could see a center/far-right coalition with Salvini as Prime Minister and Berlusconi as President of the Republic in waiting, following the ousting of the now targeted Mattarella.
So far, so Machiavellian. But over all of this, very large structural problems loom. The 2.1 trillion euro debt, 131% of the GDP, the flat economy with little growth, a democracy that hasn’t produced a working government with anything close to a mandate for a decade. The tragedy is that Italy is wealthy productive country. But waste and corruption fritter advantages away. And this corruption can be found at every level of society. For all the justified anger against the elites, the ordinary Italian – and I include myself in that category – flouts rules on a daily basis.
Back to the restaurant in Verona. The meal is over and the owner – who moments ago railed against the dishonesty of politicians – asks if we need a receipt. And a fellow diner – who had expressed his disgust at the political system – replied ‘Not if you give us a good price.’ A minor everyday piece of tax evasion. Trivial in the long run. But for the heightened passion and rhetoric, we Italians also need to look to ourselves and become the change we want to see in the country.
* I say ‘traditional’, but both PD and Forza Italia are relatively new. Traditional parties tend to morph on a regular basis, changing name several times over the course of the years.