Hereditas Historiae

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New York Times (Europe) - 5 March 2018

Italy’s Surging Populists Run Into a Political Muddle. But for How Long?

By Jason Horowitz 

Matteo Renzi, who resigned as leader of the Democractic Party after its worst showing ever, leaving a news conference in Rome on Monday. Credit Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press 

ROME — Another European election, another scene of political carnage. The stunning showing by the Five Star Movement and other populist parties in Italy’s election on Sunday shattered the establishment and suggested that the country was at the cusp of a political revolution.

Except Italy is Italy. A complicated law passed last year — and aimed at Five Star — made it difficult for any single party to win the election. Now, in typical Italian fashion, there is a muddle: No party, or coalition, has won enough support in parliament to form a government, thrusting the country into protracted negotiations over who will govern.

Which is to say, things were going according to plan.

On a continent that has been torn apart more than once by cataclysmic wars, many countries have built in safeguards against political extremes. But the question for Italy — and all of Europe — is how much longer these protections will hold.

Germany has a highly decentralized, consensus-based system. France has a two-step election that allows its citizens first to vote their hearts, and then their heads.

And Italy has its mess.

In an era of increasingly autocratic leaders — with anti-Democratic forces sweeping up furious voters across Europe — some politicians have whispered privately that although the results of the election may be disastrous for the country’s efforts at modernization, they may be preferable for European leaders and investors afraid of a populist government.

  But if there is one thing that Italian voters, like those in numerous other European countries have made clear, it is that they are sick of the political parties and their leaders that have created a land of slow economic growth, a lack of opportunity for young people and mounting public debt.

By barricading the doors of power to the Five Star Movement, the establishment runs the risk of exacerbating the anger of its supporters and helping it gain steam. And the danger of the long political negotiations that seemed to await Italy is to extend the conditions that have helped animate Europe’s populism to begin with.

“The political parties in government have sought ways — through changes to the electoral law — to remain in power, rather than allowing for the turnover that is typical of democracies,” said Emilio Gentile, professor emeritus of contemporary Italian history at the University of Rome La Sapienza.

“Italy has been unable to create a system that would allow for more reliable governability,” he added.

As a result of the new electoral law passed in October, Italians on Monday woke up to headlines screaming “Italy is ungovernable.”

Matteo Renzi, the youthful leader of the country’s center-left party who once seemed to be the country’s future, was forced to resign on Monday after the worst showing in his party’s history. Silvio Berlusconi, the octogenarian media mogul who dominated Italian politics for a generation, was marginalized and missing in action.

It now falls to Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, the keeper of its institutions and now the nation’s most powerful person, to find someone who can put together a stable government that can survive a confidence vote in the new parliament, which meets on March 23.

It doesn’t look easy. Any solution that does not include the Five Star Movement or the League, the hard-right, formerly northern-based secessionist party, will raise questions of democratic legitimacy.

“Mattarella can’t keep the populists out,” Massimo Franco, a political columnist with il Corriere della Sera, said in an interview.

“If he keeps the Five Star out, they’ll say that they have twice the votes of the League,” he continued. “If he keeps the League out, they will say that their coalition has more than the Five Star. We have two relative winners, that’s one of the problems.”

Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star Movement’s candidate for prime minister, made it clear on Monday that his party wanted to run things.

“We are the absolute winners of these elections,” he said in Rome at a news conference, adding that the party had tripled its number of lawmakers in the houses of parliament.

He said that unlike “territorial” parties, the web-based Five Star Movement represented the entire country, a fact that “inevitably launches us to the government of the country.”

He made the pitch that, since other coalitions lacked the numbers to govern, Mr. Mattarella should give the Five Star Movement a mandate to put one together.

While the Five Star Movement has resisted forming coalitions, he said his party’s new status as Italy’s strongest political force required it to be more open to at least talking with other political parties.

His statements still seemed to fall short of signaling a desire to form a stable coalition, but rather openness to ad hoc allies who would be willing to support his party’s electoral program on an issue-by-issue basis.

That is not something Mr. Mattarella is likely to go for, and many think that Five Star in fact may want to bide its time while frustration builds, along with its support, so that it can one day govern alone.

But if Five Star wants a coalition now, there are several areas of overlap, beyond populist appeal, between it and the League.

Both want to abolish laws that raise the retirement age and make it easier to hire and fire workers. Both want the ability to raise deficits beyond the European Union limit. And both have raised the possibility of holding a referendum on whether to scrap the euro.

Speaking in Milan, Matteo Salvini, the 44-year-old leader of the League, said his party, which had gained a dozen percentage points since 2013, was now the driving force of a coalition that won 37 percent of the vote. He said he would now seek to find like-minded supporters in parliament to reach a governing majority.

He called himself “proudly populist” and insisted that children and European leaders should not be afraid of him, but that “parasites” should. He spoke warmly about Marine Le Pen, the far-right French politician, and admired the “healthier and more courageous” ideas of the Hungarian premier, Viktor Orban.

But he insisted that he would not join forces with the Five Star Movement, the anti-establishment party, though together they would have a governing majority.

“No, no, no,” he said.

He was not the only one.

Mr. Renzi, announcing his resignation as the head of the governing Democratic Party, said he would leave once a new government had been put in place.

In the meantime, he said, he would not allow his party to join a government of anti-European extremists and be a “crutch to a government of anti-establishment forces” who, he said, stood for closed societies, fake news, a culture of fear, intolerance and hate speech. He said the Democratic Party would move to the opposition.

With some apparent relish, he noted that the populists who were now struggling to find a formula that would allow them to govern had campaigned against a 2016 referendum — the defeat of which cost him his job as prime minister — which would have simplified government. He called the populists “victims of their gimmicks.”

Mr. Berlusconi was licking his wounds, too, apparently holed up in his mansion outside Milan, where he received Mr. Salvini and complimented him on his big win, according to a statement by Forza Italia, Mr. Berlusconi’s party.

The statement also blamed the party’s lackluster result on a “great disadvantage caused by the impossibility to run for its leader, Silvio Berlusconi,” who is barred from office as a result of a previous tax fraud conviction.

Other analysts attributed the poor showings by the establishment parties of Mr. Renzi and Mr. Berlusconi to an anti-establishment wave that the years of government by muddle had only exacerbated.

“It says that the country over the years has formed a sentiment of distrust for politicians, their representation and participation, and voters see in the offers of populist parties like the League and the Five Star the chance to regain a central role,” said Vera Capperucci, professor of political history at Luiss University in Rome.

But, she said, “Once these anti-establishment forces get into Parliament, the tones get milder and more mature, they undergo a political metamorphosis, they lose their anti-system charge.”

The muddle strikes back.


Gaia Pianigiani and Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.