What Italy’s power crash means for the EU

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on March 8, 2018.
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POWER has crashed down in Italy — in two senses.

First and clearest. The two parties that supported democracy’s conventional division — left versus right — failed in Sunday’s inconclusive election in the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

For the European Union (EU), the outcome is all bad. The winning parties are, in varying degrees, euro-sceptic if not euro-hostile. The victors will not — nor can they — ignore the popular tide of disillusionment with the EU which put them there. Indeed, they have nourished it. Those on the Italian left who realised, before the vote, that their parties would do badly, comforted themselves with the prospect of a right-left coalition — a parallel to the right-left coalition in Germany that was finally agreed by the members of the German Social Democratic Party as Italy was voting.

But the main right-left parties in Italy together do not have enough votes to make a majority. Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union and the German SDP do — but not by much. In both countries, though in Italy more thoroughly, the political establishment is radically weakened. Welcoming this, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon exulted that the Italians had gone further than any other country towards radical change. The election, he told an Italian newspaper, had been “crucial for the global populism movement.”

On the right, the forever man of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi — who had recast himself from a billionaire-gigolo-politico to a new existence as a wise old bird who can keep the wilder spirits of the right under control — is a loser. He has insisted, after the poll’s evidence that his party had faltered, that it and thus he, would remain central. Yet at 81, he may at last lack the will to retain a place in the treacherous eddies of Italian politics.

Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, the major force on the Italian right for the past quarter century, had to cede the prime place in the coalition of the right to one of these wilder spirits, the Lega (Northern League), headed by Matteo Salvini. Salvini’s rhetoric against immigrants, while not the most extreme, nevertheless countenanced mass deportations. At 44, he is the leader of the right. More than any other major figure, he grasped, first and most fully, that curbing immigration, was the key issue for Italian voters.

On the left, the governing Partito Democratico (Democratic Party [PD]) returned a vote of around a fifth of the 73% of Italians who voted — a higher turnout than in most Western countries. The prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni — a low-key, intelligent and above all responsible politician — was most experts’ choice for the ideal leader of whatever coalition could come out of the election. The PD’s crash makes that outcome unlikely.

The party leader, Matteo Renzi, immediately consigned the PD to the status of opposition, and his own likely resignation from the leadership. He blamed his colleagues on the left of the PD for their unstinting hatred of him, and their defection from the party to found a leftist group that all but disappeared in the voting.

That has some force. Leftists’ devotion to shredding each other knows no better gladiatorial spectacle than the amphitheatre of the Roman parliament. But Renzi himself lost the large support he had when he first announced himself as the “demolition man” of the old system. He entered parliament as prime minister, was confronted with the hard choices — on cuts to public services, on forcing greater ease of hiring and firing and on tax rises — now facing Italy and in seeking to confront them lost both public backing and a crucial vote on securing a more rational election system. His quest — to seek the same mastery over Italy’s politics in the 2010s that Tony Blair and his New Labour had in the UK of the 2000s — has failed.

The second crash is the power that now descends on the victors — led, unquestionably, by the 5-Star movement founded less than a decade ago by the comedian and satirist, Beppe Grillo. The movement has benefitted from being indescribable — and thus being a vessel which the disillusioned can fill with their hopes.

The Movement took around one third of Italians’ votes. It is so far ahead of the others that it would seem undemocratic that it not be in government — indeed, not lead a government. The centre-left La Repubblica daily suggested a range of alliances — the Movement with the right, or bits of the right, or with the PD. Some of those who had chosen it, interviewed in the media through the night and early morning of Monday, said roughly the same thing: they are different. We are fed up with the old system.

Grillo is a satirist whose mocking of a political establishment through the 80s and 90s kept him — scandalously — off TV, but also gave him the mantle of the peoples’ champion. I saw him give a show in Florence’s Nelson Mandela stadium in 2009. Grillo spent his time off-stage, charging about the audience, his voice ricocheting between a shout and a whisper as he brilliantly excoriated the powers that then were, at times embracing an audience member as if to protect him or her from the malignity all around.

At the same time, he was ramping up his political campaign, starting with “Va fancullo” (a vulgar version of “get lost”) days, where he would address cheering crowds in piazzas with the same brand of satire as in Florence. This fed into the creation of the Movement, at first on the local, then national level. It was organised online, with both Grillo and his close colleague Gianroberto Casaleggio (who died in 2016), seeing the medium as a more immediate and powerful form of democracy than a discredited representative parliament.

5-Star’s other positions included strong criticism of the EU and a rejection of the euro; an increasing hostility to immigrants; strongly pro-environmentalist policies and anti-corruption in politics.

Luigi di Maio is the parliamentary leader and the Movement’s prime minister designate. Di Maio, 31, is the son of a neo-fascist Neapolitan politician, dropped out of university and worked as a website designer, then a steward at Naples’ main football ground. He is savvy, always immaculately dressed and is the most “constitutionalist” of the leading Movement’s leading members. In contrast to Grillo, he has argued that it must consider making alliances to gain power.

That commitment must now be tested. 5-Star has a terrible record in the cities in which it is in power — led by Rome.

Di Maio puts on a good show for a young and inexperienced politician — and not just because of his fine tailoring. He could have the making of a natural, even a powerful political figure.

The challenges to sustain Italy as a major economy are daunting — as Gentiloni stressed in a pre-election interview. Its growth has improved but is still relatively anaemic. Its exports are up, but not by much. Its unemployment is down, but is still very high for the young. Its productivity is low. The reforms the PD brought in have helped, but, as Gentiloni said, there is much more to be done. Real reform needs steady, prolonged, controversial changes. It will be astonishing if such reform will be possible. — Reuters