Italy has the best claim of any Western state to be the nursery of the most consequential political movements of the 20th century. This week’s Europe-shaking election in the peninsula emphasized that remarkable creativity, with dozens of parties, many with only local existences, vying for a slice of the vote. But the outcome may also mean that for the immediate future, the country is, as the Turin-based daily La Stampa put it in a post-election headline, “ungovernable.”
Christian Democracy, Fascism, Eurocommunism (“communism with a human face”) and a Trump-anticipating rule by a randy property-and-media mogul, Silvio Berlusconi, were all wholly or largely developed in Italy. The two forces now vying for the country’s leadership, the Five Star Movement and the Lega (“League”) are, in turn, the first party formed and run on the internet with a comedian-turned political blogger in charge of its ideology; and a party which created a non-existent region—Padania—in the north of Italy as a base to first argue for separating from the impoverished south, before taking its message of an anti-immigrant, Euroskeptic illiberalism to the entire country.
This is an impressive list of successful groupings, whose rises and falls speak to the shallowness of Italy’s national democratic tradition: Italy, after all, only became a united state with Rome as its capital in 1871, fought an ultimately victorious war against Austria between 1915 and 1918 at huge human cost, and was under the dictatorship of the Fascist Party from 1922 to 1943. Italians, after the Christian and Communist pillars of the postwar decades crumbled or transformed themselves, have swung between a party coalition of the moderate Right created by commercial and media power, and leftist coalitions dominated by a former Communist Party which had abandoned its Soviet-inspired model, and in the process lost much of the devotion of the industrial working class, itself no longer secure in workplaces, union halls, or party gatherings.
The Christians and Communists had developed relatively efficient ruling groups and a disciplined approach to party organization, policy making and political activity—and even a civilized way of living together. The priest and the party secretary became stock political figures in Italian society, affectionately captured in the many stories by Giovannini Guareschi featuring a village priest, Don Camillo, and the party secretary Peppone—each determined to best the other; each, generally and tacitly, respecting the other’s sphere, in a village rendering of the Cold War.
It all came apart in the 1980s. The growing corruption in politics and business is often presented as the root cause, culminating in the “Clean Hands” trials in the early 1990s which helped sweep away stable Christian Democratic government. Yet Italy’s problems ran deeper than that. As strong economic growth faltered, the postwar constitution’s care to balance every power with another power, to avoid a second Mussolini, became an increasingly debilitating factor (the lower house of Parliament and the Senate, for example, have equal powers to this day).
“Intended as a delicate system of checks and balances,” writes Paul Ginsborg, the noted historian of 20th-century Italy, “the system rapidly revealed itself as the perpetrator of weak and ineffectual government.”1 It was further weakened by an electoral system of “pure” proportional representation, which usually ensured no clear majority—and, since all governments were coalitions, no clear program, with a clutch of coalition party leaders forever jostling for ministries, advantage, and their own policies, requiring the constant drain of a Prime Minister’s time to settle intra-coalition disputes.
There is no establishment, in the differing American, British, and French sense: No parties emerging over centuries, adapting to the exigencies of time and events; no grand families steeped in politics stretching back decades; no sternly educated cadres destined for high political, administrative, or corporate power; no strong attachment to ideals of freedom and independence; no monarchy or aristocracy with a residual leverage over public life with a large call (as in the UK) on public affection. The postwar pillars were themselves new. The Christian Democratic Party, though owing much to the pre-war Popular Party founded by the priest Don Sturzo, was created within the Vatican during the war by the man who would be Prime Minister, Alcide de Gaspari. The communists in the postwar coalition briefly took their cue from Moscow, even if Antonio Gramsci, the party leader who died from neglect of his illnesses in a fascist prison, sought to loosen the Stalinist bonds. The collapse of the Christian Democrats and the democratization of the communists ended a system which, for all its corruptions and silences, presided over decades of rapid growth (at least in the north), and extensive modernization of a relatively poor and war-ravaged state. Breaking from two of the world’s largest ideologies, Italian politics has inevitably become febrile and increasingly dominated by large figures, or figures striving to be large.
The era of the largest figure, Berlusconi, began officially when his political creation, “Forza Italia”—the name derived from a football chant and the party organization provided by the executives of Berlusconi’s advertising agency—won the 1992 election. Its rule was brief: A coalition partner deserted and brought the government down. For the next six years of rule by the former communists, now re-branded as democratic socialists, Berlusconi, who had made his first fortune in construction in the booming postwar years, built up his Mediaset communications company as by far the most dominant such group in Italy, enjoying a preeminent position in television, newspapers, magazines, books, advertising, and public relations.
Among the richest men in Europe, he honed a public style at once genial and polemical. Invariably sporting a wide grin in public, he invariably represented the Left as old communists beneath a new democratic skin, hostile to both liberty and the market—the opposite, he affirmed, of his own ideals. (The party even became Popolo della Liberta for a few years, then reverted to Forza Italia). His three broadcast channels were not uniformly propagandist—though Network Four was, its news division run and presented by Emilio Fede, a man of such spaniel-like devotion as to embarrass its object, who used him as a butt of jokes. But though carrying some dissenting voices, all channels swung behind him at election time.
His private life had adulterous scandals buzzing round it from the beginning; his wealth was displayed rather than veiled; his jokes—as that he could never deploy enough police and military to stop rapes because there were so many beautiful girls—were often in the worst taste. Constantly proving, with the aid of figures which he brought with him in sheaves to interviews, that Italy was getting richer, he was finally pushed out after two further and longer periods of government in the 2000s, largely by pressure from the European Union, which was worried by the effect of an Italian collapse. In his 2014 book, Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner wrote that “At one point that fall (2011), a few European officials approached us with a scheme to try to force Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi out of power; they wanted us to refuse to support IMF loans to Italy until he was gone.” The United States refused, as Geithner wrote, to have the Italian Prime Minister’s “blood on our hands.” Berlusconi did resign, however, and the Italian President, Giorgio Napolitano, appointed an unelected government of experts, which then gave way to a center-Left government in 2013.
The arrival of the 39-year-old Matteo Renzi as Democratic Party leader and, from 2014, Prime Minister gave an initial strong boost to the party. He passed some liberalizing laws, but failed to make the constitutional change necessary for reducing the power of the senate, and resigned from the premiership, though not the party leadership.
Under the low-key guidance of Renzi’s successor, Paolo Gentiloni, the reforms began to bear fruit in modest growth in GDP and exports—but too late to avoid a humiliating collapse early this week. Gentiloni’s efforts, with his similarly low-key, responsible Finance Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, to confront Italians with the need to face their country’s pressing problems—huge public debt, low productivity, a weakened banking sector, hard-pressed medium-sized companies, a poverty-stricken and heavily mafia-ized south—and to undergo a period of further, often difficult reforms with slow growth, failed to catch the attention or support of at least half of its former electorate. In an election-eve interview with the former leftist senator Antonio Polito, Gentiloni said that “here we are deciding whether to continue on the road of a market economy, an open society and sustainable welfare, or whether to risk losing our way.”
For him and his party, the way is likely lost: likely rather than certainly, because the prevailing view in the party’s shocked ranks is to go into opposition and regroup, and there is little chance at present that it would, like the German Social Democrats, be persuaded into a coalition. Yet at this stage, since neither the Left nor the Right refuse to ally with the Five Stars and they will not ally with each other, a coalition appears impossible—thus pointing to a minority government, inherently unstable; or fresh elections, which may change little. “Italy Ungovernable”? Ungoverned, certainly, for the immediate future.
Two forces now claim victory, and the leadership of Italy: the Five Star Movement and the Lega. The first commands the largest vote for a single party, 32.7 percent, and thus has, democratically, a large claim to lead the coalition it will need to create a majority in the lower house and the Senate. The Lega, supposedly the junior partner in the right-wing coalition, surpassed Berlusconi’s Forza Italia by more than three percent: 17.4 percent to 14 percent, to be exact, allowing its leader, Matteo Salvini, to claim leadership of the Right which has a combined 37 percent of the vote.
Both the Movement and the Lega grew in the 2000s as the economy worsened and neither Left nor Right could find a steady footing in government, bedeviled as their coalitions were by internal feuds. The two “victors” have shallow roots, but strong reasons for their relative popularity. The Lega, then called Lega Nord, took its first support from northerners, mainly in the rich regions of Veneto and Lombardy, who professed themselves sick of paying taxes to pour into the sluggish, criminalized south and the “thieves of Rome.” The south—roughly, that part of Italy below Rome—lags on every measure far behind the north: more than 10 percent fewer people employed, a youth unemployment of over a third, productivity up to 30 percent lower. The south, with a third of the population, accounts for less than a quarter of GDP, and is home to most of the organized crime.
When, around Christmas 2013, I interviewed Elisabettta Tripodi, the brave woman who was elected mayor of Rosarno, a town under the thumb of Italy’s most powerful and richest mafia, the ‘Ndrangheta, it was refreshing to meet a politician both straightforward and unblinkered, who sought to do something for the town in which she had been born (and had left, for a university education and a much safer career in the north). She survived about three years, having improved the town with leisure and other facilities, but resigned in 2015, the latest in a long list of unfinished elective terms, disheartened by what she called the “mean minded,” zero-sum infighting which defines politics in the area, and by the continued power of organized crime.
Immigration has been the vivid thread running through Italian politics for the past eight years. An estimated 700,000 immigrants have flowed into or through Italy since 2010. For some time, Milan’s grandiose central station had hundreds of migrants trying to sleep, or beg, in and around it. Italians’ twin attitudes toward them—the travelling public often reacting with distaste, the Red Cross and other volunteers providing food, care and advice—were on daily display. The League made immigration its main selling point, and its vote was the reward. Yet Forza Italia’s “moderation” was largely a fiction created by and round Berlusconi’s chosen image as the wise old bird: Roberto di Stefano, the Forza mayor of Sesto San Giovanni, near Milan, deported over 200 immigrants from his town, warning that “if they come back we’re ready for them.”
The south displayed as much horror of the flood as the north. In 2010, Rosarno itself was the scene of full-scale riots, as the mostly African fruit pickers, living in shacks on low wages, reacted to a non-fatal shooting of one of their number by gathering in the town and hurling rocks at police; the leftist daily La Repubblica invoked the Ku Klux Klan to describe the animosity of the locals to the African workers. But it did not swing to the Lega, which had insulted its people for years before turning away from “Padania,” as much as to the Five Stars, which had prioritized the area. The Movement’s very novelty, and the perceived uselessness of conventional politics, rewarded it with majorities of over 50 percent in some areas, its promise of a living wage for all proving widely popular.
Though by sheer numbers the most popular single party, the Five Star Movement is also the least experienced in governance. Even the Lega had periods in right-wing coalitions through the 2000s, and had ministerial posts (though not Salvini). The Movement, with Grillo in the van, prides itself—rightly, by electoral logic—on its distance from power, its distaste for parliamentary procedure, and its steady conviction that all but its own people are fatally corrupted. Its candidate for Prime Minister, Luigi di Maio, was a student militant, a university dropout (as was Salvini), a webmaster and a football ground steward. Astute and presentable, he has been able to transform himself into an effective stump orator and managed to develop a political and media presence distinct from that of Grillo.
But he knows next to nothing of substance about the economy, foreign affairs, social issues or security. The inability of Virginia Raggi, a lawyer and the Five Star mayor of Rome, to have any effect on the corruption and gross inefficiency of the capital’s administration has not seemed to damage the Movement—but may be a pointer to its possible ascent to supreme national power.
Russia, which has sought to cultivate both the Five Star Movement and the Lega, won big this week. The Movement’s foreign policy expert, Manlio di Stefano, spoke at a conference of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in 2016, to call for an end to sanctions on Russia, blaming EU and U.S. meddling in Ukraine for the country’s crisis. Salvini has visited Moscow several times, and has openly expressed his deep admiration for Putin in Trumpian terms: The Lega has signed a cooperation deal with United Russia, and several of its leading members visited Crimea last year. Italy’s governments of both center-Right and center-Left have long been less convinced of the need and utility of sanctions, while protesting that they will not break ranks with the EU majority. Silvio Berlusconi became an apparently close friend of Putin’s and still visits him regularly, but even he remained within the European consensus. The next government, however, may well take its policy on Russia outside of it.
In any case, the victors have little respect for the European Union. Grillo has periodically proposed leaving the Eurozone and blames it—another popular stance—for abandoning Italy to the immigrant wave. Salvini has repeated several times that he expects the euro to collapse in the near future. From within the establishment, a former center-Left Finance Minister, Vincenzo Visco, who was influential in organizing the entry of Italy into the Eurozone in 2000, used an interview in La Stampa in December to excoriate Germany for “growing at our expense” and for running a “mercantilist, nationalist and isolationist” economic policy. Even Gentiloni, an enthusiast for the European Union, told Antonio Polito in a Corriere interview that he would never support the creation of a European Finance Minister with powers to override national governments—a rejection of the position taken by French President Emmanuel Macron.
A few days before the vote, the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, expressed (in a private conversation that was naturally leaked) his fear that Italy would have “no operational government,” a prescient remark. An unidentified Northern European diplomat told Politico that “I just don’t know how long the patience of financial markets will last…in the Netherlands or in Germany [coalition] talks have lasted a long time, but they don’t have that debt.” (Italy’s public debt stands at €2.2 trillion, the highest in the European Union).
Italy has been able to finance the debt because the quantitative easing program of the European Central Bank, purchasing large amounts of government debt, has kept the debt costs low, and Italy’s growth recovered as oil prices remained low and the United States and other European economies expanded. But quantitative easing is likely to be terminated soon, and present growth may falter: According to the economist Luigi Zingales, were the coincidence of easy debt and U.S. growth to end, Italy would be faced with the hardest of choices. “If the market perceives Italian debt to be unsustainable, there would either have to be a European bailout or Italy would be forced to exit the Eurozone,” Zingales has written. That is, it would be in the position of Greece—but with an economy many times larger and thus probably beyond Brussels’s capacity to save.
The largest question overhanging the beautiful peninsula is: Will its democracy survive? It’s no longer a subject for think tank seminars; it’s real. Juncker’s forebodings of an absent government have come to pass. If and when a real one is in place, it is likely to be populist, ignorant, and insecure.
Francis Fukuyama recently defined populism in these pages as a regime that promises what it can’t deliver; seeks to divide the “true” people from existing and incoming groups who don’t share the dominant national ethnicity; and promotes leaders who develop a cult of personality. The Five Star Movement and the Lega fall, in differing degrees, into all of these categories: they have made extravagant spending promises; have promised to repatriate thousands of migrants and stop others in order to preserve the identity of Italians; and have focused attention on their leaders, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Salvini. Trump, as Fukuyama noted, promised much in all these categories too, though has rowed back from several, especially the spending programs.
Whatever government emerges over the next weeks or months in Italy may also row back, perhaps further and more hastily than Trump. Its contempt for the European Union may be transformed into dependence. Its Russophilia may be put on the back burner: Vladimir Putin does not have the means to materially assist the Italian economy. It may even try to focus on and reform the social and economic problems which its parties have airily insisted were the fault of the left.
But if parties can wake up to realities, what happens to their millions of supporters? They have perhaps elected them ignorantly, but in good faith: They believed, or hoped, they could change the conditions which oppress them. When they can’t, what then takes the place of the jaunty populists, still in rejoicing mode this week? It will take more than creativity to get out of the black hole these elections have dug.