This essay, on the outcome of the Italian elections and the formation of the new government, was the main part of my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Chris Froome and the thrill of sport.) It was published in the Observer, 27 May 2018, under the headline ‘With no progressive force to give it shape, Italians’ anger has hit a wall’.
‘A political prime minister of a political government.’ So said Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s populist Five Star Movement (M5S), of Giuseppe Conte, the virtually unknown law professor chosen to head the new coalition government between M5S and the rightwing Lega. But chosen by whom? And political in what sense?
In March, the Italian elections swept out of power the parties that had governed Italy, in one form or other, for the past quarter of a century. The Democratic Party (PD), nominally the party of the left, which had been in power since 2013, lost 180 of its 292 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. As in much of Europe, the left has self-destructed by abandoning its traditional working-class constituency. Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which had governed from 2001 to 2006 and 2008 to 2011 (in the latter years under the label ‘The People of Freedom’) was reduced to 14 per cent of the vote.
The main beneficiaries were the two ‘anti-establishment’ parties that now form the coalition government. The Five Star Movement became the biggest single party with 32.7 per cent of the vote, while the Lega, a repackaging of the reactionary Northern League, quadrupled its vote to 17.4 per cent.
The election marked a rejection of the austerity policies of the past decade, anger over the migration crisis and hostility towards the EU. It was a rejection, too, of unelected leaders and technocratic governments that have plagued Italy over the past decade and which both the Lega and M5S claimed to oppose. M5S promised to reject coalition governments and to govern only with a full majority.
The new government has yet to be installed, but those promises seem already as well founded as Italy’s faltering economy. Conte now occupies the Palazzo Chigi partly because of major differences between the two coalition partners and partly because of the unease felt by both the Italian political establishment and the EU at the prospect of the new government. Conte, in the grand Italian tradition, is a compromise, a figure that all sides hope to manipulate. That’s the very tradition against which the electorate rebelled in March. To call him a ‘political prime minister’ is to give an unelected technocrat a new name.
There has been compromise, too, over policies. Many of the more regressive policies, especially of the Lega, have survived, while the more radical or destabilising proposals have been marginalised. The ‘government contract’ between the two parties includes the League’s proposal for a flat-rate tax – essentially a tax cut for the rich. Much of the League’s anti-migrant stance has also been retained, though its threat to deport an estimated 400,000 undocumented migrants seems to have been ditched. The M5S’s idea of a ‘universal basic income’, on the other hand, has been reduced to a promise of a handout to poor families and the unemployed, who will be disqualified if they turn down three job offers.
The more Eurosceptic parts of both parties’ manifestos have been pruned. The original draft ‘government contract’ included an opt-out from the eurozone, a promise to break eurozone stability rules, which limit public debt to 60% of GDP, and a demand for the European Central Bank to cancel €250bn of Italian debt. After a severe pushback from both Brussels and the Italian elite, the promise to leave the eurozone has given way to a desire to rework EU treaties, while there is no longer an insistence on the cancellation of Italian debt. An election result that might have been as explosive as the Brexit vote may well have been contained.
For all the talk of an ‘anti-establishment’ coalition, at the heart of the new government squat some of the more unpleasant sections of the establishment. The Lega has long had a close relationship with Berlusconi, had ministers in both Berlusconi governments of a decade ago and, in the election, was part of the coalition of the right, which included Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the neo-fascist FdI.
After the election, Berlusconi was involved in the early coalition talks and only stepped away after the M5S refused to work with him. That the M5S is unwilling to talk to Berlusconi but willing to form a government with the even less palatable Lega shows that, in the absence of a progressive force to give it shape, mere anger with the mainstream can allow reaction to take centre stage and the establishment to repackage itself.
Popular anger is real and significant and potentially a transformative force. But Italy may end up with much the same as before, only with a far nastier tinge.