Italian Politics One Month Later

By Enrico Verga, a writer, consultant, and based in Milan. As a consultant, he concentrates on firms interested in opportunities in international and digital markets. His articles have appeared in Il Sole 24 Ore, Capo Horn, Longitude, Il Fatto Quotidiano, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter .

A month after the election, how are things developing in Italy?

Let’s take a look at the blocs angling for power.

The Parties and Coalitions on the F ield

Partito Democratico (PD): Comparable to the US Democratic Party. Before this last election, it was in power; in its governments, the prime minister was first the party secretary Matteo Renzi and later Paolo Gentiloni.

The PD lost the March 2018 elections. It didn’t just lose them, it really lost them, as can be seen from the electoral map, where it is actually (red being the color representing the PD, perhaps given that many of its voters historically supported the Italian Communist Party).

Center right: Made up of three parties, and therefore sometimes referred to as a “three-legged alliance.” There was also a fourth leg (), but its performance in the elections was so weak that we can forget about it.

The three legs are:

Forza Italia: Obtained about 13% of the vote. Its leader is Silvio Berlusconi, who is famous for many reasons: he is the founder of the Mediaset media empire and the former owner of Milan, the soccer club, as well as a great fan of women – as it happens, he is a big supporter of quotas for women (quote rosa) in politics in general and in his own party in particular.

In previous elections, his party, created with his money, was always the leader of the center-right coalition. This time, though, it came in second. Notwithstanding this disappointment, Berlusconi, who is technically unable to hold public office due to certain legal issues on which he has appealed to the court in Strasbourg, is demanding for himself the post of prime minister.

Lega Nord: Obtained about 17% of the vote. Originally it was called the “Lombard League” and it promoted the idea of secession: splitting off the rich North from the poorer Center and South of Italy. It is now led by a new leader, Matteo Salvini, who focused his campaign, following an approach not entirely dissimilar to Trump’s, around a concept of “Italy first.”

Fratelli d’Italia: The remains of the MSI, itself the not particularly impressive continuation of the fascist party of Mussolini. It is led by the blonde Giorgia Meloni, who, while making no secret of her boyfriend and their out-of-wedlock child, stresses her belief in the traditional family and the values it represents.

Cinque Stelle (Five Stars): The party of the moment, as it were, winning more votes (about 32%) than any other.

The party sprang from an initiative of Beppe Grillo, a famous comedian, and Gian Roberto Casaleggio, the head of a PR agency with that are rather eccentric, even apocalyptic. The party criticizes the powers that be of global finance, and its delegates have also warned the world about . Curiously, it has picked as its potential Minister for Economic Affairs an individual with close links to the aforementioned powers that be, . According to a recently published article, Casaleggio e Associati even managed to get a from another group linked to the “powers that be,” the Soros Open Society Foundation.

When Gian Roberto Casaleggio passed away, in proper dynastic style he left his PR agency to his son Davide. The latter has often been criticized in the Italian press for his murky links to the party founded by his father, and in fact has been accused of actually through a sort of : a foundation of which he is the sole guarantor.

Another noteworthy feature of the Five Stars movement is that it requires its politicians to that requires them to if, once elected, they leave the party. This and other rules have been often challenged in the Italian press as abusive or possibly even illegal.

However, as will be explained further below, the most serious criticism directed at the Five Stars party is that it is in the process of reneging on all of its commitments.

Plotline

The way the Italian system works is that after an election, the parties negotiate with each other and try to set up a coalition that will include a majority of the delegates. During this process, the Italian president (currently Sergio Mattarella) plays an important role. The (Italian-style) presidency is a rather unfamiliar office from an American point of view – the idea is that the president (a bit like the Fed chair) is supposed to be supra partes, outside of all political factions, and to act motivated exclusively by the objective of finding a stable, enduring government.

Given that none of the coalitions won an absolute majority in the election, we find ourselves in a scenario where two of them (or possibly parts of them, see below) will have to come to an agreement.

By “coming to an agreement,” I mean of course finding common ground on their plans for Italy, but given that the flesh is weak and that in Italy the salaries and other perks of government officials are rather juicy, the parties will also need to come to an agreement on who gets to be ministers, vice-ministers, on who gets to be in charge of public companies, and so on. Summing up, there will indeed be compromises on programs, but those in the coalition also need to get hooked up.

The Outlook for the Major Blocs

The PD lost. With uncharacteristic finesse, they have declared that they know they lost, they are ready to play the part of the opposition, and nonetheless, should Mattarella call upon them, they will be ready to do whatever is necessary for the good of the nation.

The center right is feeling a bit sick to its stomach. Berlusconi is not thrilled that what has always been the second strongest party (Lega) is now the leader of the coalition, but he is trying to grin and bear it. Lega has fairly modest economic resources, while Forza Italia can, at least in theory, count on Berlusconi’s personal fortune (even though the latter has said repeatedly that he won’t throw any more money into the party).

In any case, given that the center-right has a plurality of the votes, it considers itself to have a sort of first claim on forming a government. Of course, to do that, it does need to fish in troubled waters and come up with the necessary additional votes.

The Five Stars are having trouble being more than comic relief. They were counting on winning the election outright, and during the campaign, they promised that: they wouldn’t form coalitions with other parties, they would , they would leave the European Union, they were against the PD which was corrupt, they were against the PD’s secretary Renzi who had used his power to reward his friends, they were against Lega which had no solutions to offer, only hatred, they were sympathetic to Putin, they were critical of knee-jerk alliance with America. And so on.

Now that they have won the election but are on the verge of losing their chance of taking power, their leader Luigi Di Maio is yielding to the advances of everyone with the air of an old pro.

First he declared that the Five Stars would stick with the EU, with the Euro, and with the Atlantic alliance.

Next he declared that he was willing to form a coalition government with any political party as long as it would respect the Five Stars’ rules.

After that, he declared that he would be happy to form a government with the PD provided they would save face for him by leaving Renzi out of it. Or he could form a government with Lega provided that they would save face for him by leaving Berlusconi out of it.

For the time being, the center-right parties have been fairly decent about maintaining their pacts, and it soon became clear that Salvini/Lega would stick to the coalition they had committed to. Di Maio then returned to the idea of forming a government with the PD. When the PD said it wasn’t interested, the Five Stars responded that for the good of the country it ought to be, considering that it could thereby .

The current state of play is that Di Maio is continuing on his desperate quest to find a person, party, angel, demon, or extraterrestrial life form that might be capable of giving him enough support to allow him to form a government. In this he draws strength from the 11 million Italians who believed in him and his promise to provide a sort of universal basic income at least to the unemployed – an attractive vision especially in the South given the high unemployment rate there. On the other hand, if it starts to look like the promises of the Five Stars are empty, then there is a significant risk that many of its voters will lose faith and bolt in the next election.

Di Maio doesn’t merely have to worry about the voters deserting – there are also real reasons to doubt the loyalty of some of the newly-elected Five Stars senators and deputies. After the previous election, there were about 40 defectors (deputies and senators) from the Five Stars: the so-called “,” which subsequently became a prize that other parties worked to attract into their own orbits in order to bulk up their coalitions.

Di Maio’s worry is that as he continues to fail to form a government, there will be fresh defections – there have already been eight. Many of the Five Stars’ representatives come from modest backgrounds. Although defecting would mean having to pay the fines mentioned above, that might seem like a small price to pay compared to having the opportunity to safeguard their (potentially lucrative) seats at the table.

All of this raises the stakes for Di Maio in his frantic efforts to try to accomplish something, somehow.

Predictions

Unfortunately, I don’t have a degree in futurology from doctor Nostradamus. Nevertheless, here are my projections based on the current situation.

The government will be center-right.

There are rumors (none with good sourcing) to the effect that the center-right government that forms would operate as a placeholder: it would pass a new electoral law and then call for new elections. Frankly, I don’t find this credible. Keeping in mind that 60% of the newly elected senators and deputies are first-timers, it becomes hard to imagine (thinking uncharitably) that after a mere two years, they would knowingly vote to dissolve the government and thereby give up their salaries. Perhaps if they felt like they were absolutely sure of being reelected, but that’s unlikely if they don’t fulfill at least some of the promises that got them votes in the first place.

Lega will dominate the key ministerial seats (Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior), while the less critical ones will go to Forza Italia. Vice-minister positions will go to Fratelli d’Italia and other minor parties (perhaps even the fourth leg), or to fugitives from the Five Stars.

Relative to previous governments, the new center-right government will be pro-Putin and anti-globalization (at least officially); also more or less pro-Trump, considering the nationalist orientation of the current US government.

On the economic front, both Lega and Forza Italia clamor for a 15% flat tax, but the idea of them actually passing it sounds like science fiction.

How might the prospective government compare to previous Berlusconi governments? The balance of power among the parties of the center right is still being worked out. However, given Salvini’s campaign, we can expect more opposition to migrants and a more critical approach to the European Union – by contrast, Berlusconi’s attitude toward the EU is less hostile.

Will it be a good government? I have no idea. Compared to the available alternative, though, it’s possible that a right government will be the lesser wrong.

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17 comments

  1. Temporarily Sane

    However, as will be explained further below, the most serious criticism directed at the Five Stars party is that it is in the process of reneging on all of its commitments.

    After reading Wolfgang Streeck’s How Will Capitalism End? I am doubtful that elected politicians can do more than tinker around the edges of the system. I admit the book confirmed a pre-existing bias, but when was the last time a government elected in the EU or the United States on promises to put the brakes on neoliberal capitalism, and work to benefit the citizenry, actually delivered the goods?

    Reply
  2. pat b

    Any chance 5 Star could pick one idea… Say a plebiscite on leaving the Euro, or
    getting one major platform issue pushed into the legislative agenda, and then sign up as a minority party with some ministers?

    Reply
  3. makedoanmend

    Thanks Otis. Was wondering about looking for info on Italy but was too lazy (and busy) to do much searching. The background and state of play are interesting to this outsider.

    If the Italian right is anything like the Irish right wing government, the Italians are facing accelerated or at least profound incremental neo-liberal economic policies – i.e. nothing changes except there are more nationalistic soundbites for the plebs to placate their predicaments as their jobs and lives become ever more precarious and shabby. Oh, the rich become richer. These days, the rich always become richer. I wonder if there is a connection?

    Reply
    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think the Italian blackshirts are a far nastier bunch than the Irish blueshirts. Since the old Italian Christian Democrats dissolved into smaller parties and factions they seem to be less restrained in espousing more overtly racist and bigoted policies, although the economic populist strain that runs through them may make them a little less open to Anglo style neo-liberalism. Irish centre right parties (we seem to have a lot of them) are quite weak beer in comparison I think.

      Reply
      1. makedoanmend

        Tbf PK, I don’t think Fine Gael has carried any of its historical baggage with it into the 21st century as such. In many ways, they have become an Irish version of the UK Liberal party, but like the Liberal party they have no sense of the plight of ordinary working people whatsoever. They seem to be the party of the upper middles classes who court one sole constituency, that of the rich, for the rich and by the rich. Plus they are the embodiment of neo-liberal ideology as it has developed during the last 40+ years.

        Though of the Left, I don’t tend to focus on other’s fascist tendencies, so I often tend to ignore their existence in Europe altogether. And tbh I know zilch about Italian politics and its modern trends.

        Having said that, as privitisation runs up costs to the average punter, as wages stagnate, and efficient public services disappear, I do wonder if FG and others mightn’t fall into the nationalism trap to ward off the affects of their policies and ideology. Sinn Fein, and the hatred of hardcore FGers of them, cuts off the nationalist card right now, but I’ve been hearing some positive noises about Sinn Fein from a few Fine Gael politicians.

        We live (if we survive) in interesting times.

        cheers

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          Yes, the cosy relationship between FG and SF is one of the weirder outcomes of Brexit. From what I’ve heard, senior FG’ers have been forced to talk to northerners for the first time, and they were profoundly shocked by the attitudes of the DUPers they talked too. And they quite like that, for the first time, they are seen favourably by nationalist northerners who have always quite rightly suspected FG would sell them out in a second if they could get away with it.

          FG are also in a situation where they can afford to talk to SF because nobody believes they have anything in common – they have no need to make a show of hating them like FF have to for fear of being painted with that brush. But I don’t think this means they are tempted by nationalism. Their policies are entirely self interested, and for the moment it makes sense for them to be taking the side of SF in the North, they can hardly do anything else given the ineptness and duplicity of May and her DUP ‘allies’.

          Reply
          1. makedoanmend

            Yep, I see what you mean. My last comment is meant to be seen over the medium to long term. Privisation and the dismemberment of efficient public services in Ireland have yet to be fully implemented, but implemented they will be. During the next economic downturns as people look for succour from a society that no longer has the infrastructure to ameliorate the results of neoliberal economic policies, there will be repercussions. This is when the dynamics of crass nationalism, corporatism and other factors only coming to the fore in other nations today may well become a feature of the Irish political landscape. The poor and working people will be set against each other, and the political certainties we take for granted may well suffer as seems to be happening across the West.

            Reply
  4. Kurt Sperry

    I took rather a long time composing a post here on the topic of Italian politics and upon hitting the reply button was redirected to the “The True, Accurate, and Only Answer to “How *Exactly* Will We Pay for Medicare for All?” topic instead of this one so I fear my time was wasted by the buggy software here writing my reply. If there is any continuing interest in the topic, I will perhaps try again to provide some local insight from the ground in Italy although it’s difficult to justify the effort when the result is likely to be summarily thrown away into the e-trash bin.

    Reply
    1. Filiform Radical

      I understand if you don’t want to retype your post, but I’d be interested to read it if you have the time. Additional perspectives from those with first-hand experience are seldom a bad thing.

      If you’re worried about the software eating your replies in the future, I recommend keeping a local copy of what you’ve written until you’re sure things have worked correctly.

      Reply
    2. Lambert Strether

      I’m sorry about your comment. That said, the Internet is a hostile computing environment. It’s always a good idea to copy one’s comment somewhere before hitting the Submit button.

      Reply
  5. Kurt Sperry

    Two small points: The “Lega Nord” is now simply called “Lega” as it is trying to move from a regional party to a national one, and the simplistic left-right descriptors really break down for Americans when applied to Italian politics, so it may be better to avoid them altogether when writing about the subject for a primarily American audience. For instance, even the “right” here in Italy almost never speaks against the universal national health care system or the social safety net, so to an American Democrat, that “right”would be dangerously radical leftists by their standard. For the liberal Italian press, merely advocating for some–any, really– controls on immigration is sufficient to be categorized as “right wing”.

    Reply
    1. MisterMr

      You speak as if in Italy we don’t have immigration control, but in reality we have quite harsh policies against immigrants.
      The idea we don’t have is a construct of A) xenophobic parties like the Lega banging about it and B) a lot of pressure for people from northern africa to enter in Italy, that keeps immigration high regardless of immigration policies.

      Also, even if parties of the right don’t sperak about e.g. privatizing the italian NHS (because they would lose a ton of votes), they are low taxes guys (the 15% flat tax, and Berluscony already lowered the marginal income tax decades ago). If you cut taxes continuously, either you blow an ever-increasing hole in government’s budget or you’ll have to cancel services, that are mostly the NHS and public scools, or you’ll have to cut pensions etc.
      So the fact that these parties are low-tax parties leads to the same “neo-liberal” policies they apparently criticize.

      Reply
  6. DJG

    The Italians undoubtedly have backed themselves into a dilemma of three, I suppose. The electorate is split into thirds. As world-class negotiators, they will busy themselves for quite along time. I doubt Verga’s conclusion that a center-right government might be a good thing.

    I read La Stampa on-line almost daily. Of course, La Stampa represents upper-middle-class Turin, yet upper-middle-class Turin is antifascist, skeptical, and, in U.S. terms, quite “liberal.” Verga describes the Partito Democratico’s finesse, but I was more impressed by a report in La Stampa yesterday that some 500 PD female officeholders have signed a petition that the upper level of the PD should stop being a boys’ club. PD press conferences tend to consiste of a bunch of middle-aged guys burbling–you know, like the Democratic National Committee. This does not bode well. (A warning: I did one of those on-line ballot preferences and am aligned with Liberi e Uguali.)

    By U.S. standards, Five Stars align with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. They certain are not conservatives. Yet their politics have been sloppy indeed–an entire party run as a Huffington Post comments section. No pretty. Besides the chemtrails, there were the incidents over vaccination, the parliamentary mess for no good reason over LGBT rights, and then the incomprehensible swirl over ius soli (a kind of birthright citizenship). Five Stars isn’t completely incompetent, but it sure would help to control its own ugly tendencies.

    So the odd thing is that by U.S. standards, well over half of the Italian electorate stands to the left of someone like Hillary Clinton.

    And speaking of ugly tendencies, Salvini and Meloni as serious interlocutors? As potential members of the Italian “Cabinet”? Mi prendi in giro, ne.

    Reply
  7. Ed

    Once you go complete CT and adopt the view that these countries are run by a real government and that the people supposedly in charge of the legal government are actors hired by the real government, I have to admit that political news starts to make sense.

    So what is happening in Italy is that as people catch on, the real government has found actors to impersonate outsiders (5*). But they are not really outsiders, they are still actors. Or they are actually outsiders but since they are new to this can be bamboozled easily by the real government. So Italy, like every place else,will continued to be governed by globalist principles. It will be interesting to see how the show ends.

    Reply
  8. Seamus Padraig

    Berlusconi’s attitude toward the EU is less hostile.

    If so, then Berlusconi must be a very forgiving person. According to knowledgeable sources, it was the ECB that engineered his eviction from office back in 2011:

    Reply

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