In the end, the Italian people won. Two parties, the Five Star Movement and the Lega (League), together representing a small majority of votes, have agreed on a “contract” of policies and mechanisms of governance and will form the next administration. That which in most democracies would have resulted in an immediate accession to power prompted instead nearly three months of negotiation, false starts, presidential vetoes, and, outside the negotiating chamber, a tumbling in the value of Italian stocks and a sharp rise in interest rates Italy must pay on its vast, €2 trillion-plus debt.
These past months framed a contest between the 76-year-old President, Sergio Mattarella, appointed by the Parliament and desperate to keep Italy strongly engaged in the European Union; and two parties with a popular mandate they interpret as calling for a relaxation of EU rules, with the threat of withdrawal from the Eurozone looming if significant changes are not made.
The leaders of the two parties in the government, Luigi di Maio (31) of the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini (45) of the Lega, chose Giuseppe Conte (53), a Florentine law professor, to be Prime Minister—chosen since both wished to take the post and neither would give way to the other. Both di Maio and Salvini will be deputy premiers, heading two of the most powerful ministries: di Maio will take the Ministry of Economic Development and Labour, Salvini that of the Interior. It’s hard to imagine that Conte, a neophyte in frontline politics, will have much room to maneuver, or authority to command—all the less so since Giancarlo Giorgetti (51), the closest adviser to Salvini and an independent power within the Lega, will be head of the Prime Minister’s office.
Paolo Savona, the 81-year-old former minister, economist, and businessman, whose earlier nomination by di Maio and Salvini as Economy Minister was vetoed by Mattarella, is retained in cabinet as Minister for European Affairs, charged with conducting all policy toward the European Union. Savona has taken a consistently skeptical line on the euro, and had years ago called for Italy’s exit from it: hence the presidential refusal to countenance him in a post where he had direct authority over the country’s finances. The Economy Minister will instead be the 69-year-old Giovanni Tria, like Conte a professor little-known outside of the academy, and one who will have to fight to limit the much more experienced Savona’s influence.
Otherwise, the cabinet is composed of a mixture of prominent members from both parties: most relatively young and with no governing experience, five of them women. The arguments on policy, legislation, and strategy will be at the top, where the party leaders and the experienced politicians, all Euroskeptics, are committed to electorates who have voted for them in expectation of radical change.
The field, for the moment, is cleared for action. The center-Right grouping of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the center-Left Democratic Party, the outgoing government, are greatly diminished, the latter at war with itself. The small far-Right party, Brothers of Italy, has committed itself to supporting the new Administration, ensuring that it will enjoy comfortable majorities for the time being.
Italian parties are prone to splits, and there is some dissent already in the Five Stars’ ranks among those members who came from the Left and remain leftist in belief. They see joint government with the right-wing Lega as an alliance dangerous to the programs and soul of a party only nine years old, founded in September 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo as an anti-establishment web-based movement that would replace what he saw as the archaic structures of a corrupt representative democracy. Instead, under di Maio’s leadership, Five Star looks like a conventional party, if more inchoate than most in settling on a consistent political line, zigzagging between left-wing and right-wing positions.
In their contract, the parties have chosen to pursue changes that will smash through the red lines on public spending laid down by the European Commission. They plan to restore cuts in pensions and to introduce some form of minimum wage, as well as a flat tax. They want to force all unregistered immigrants—whose numbers run into the hundreds of thousands—out of the country, and they pledge to close mosques and Islamic institutions deemed to be radical.
Their success has shocked the European Union, which sees in them the first firmly Euroskeptic administration in a major West European state, and fears that it will find allies in the rightist, similarly Euroskceptic governments of Hungary and Poland. Though di Maio and Salvini have striven to reassure Mattarella, Italian business, and the European Union, they see themselves as radical forces for more than cosmetic change, even as revolutionaries. This is especially true of Salvini, the present winner in this affair, now the most popular politician in the country with a party that is surging in the polls.
They could, of course, bit by bit moderate themselves into cautious reformers, dropping much of their anti-EU rhetoric and engaging with the brute facts of Italy’s still struggling economy. It is growing, but at only 1.4 to 1.5 percent a year, more slowly than every other EU economy except the soon-to-exit United Kingdom. It has kept its budget deficit well within the 3 percent limit, but at the cost of cuts, and it remains burdened with huge interest payments on the debt. The threat of a default is still large enough to cause nervousness among investors. The pressure from business, and the Union, will be toward moderation, keeping their program changes to the minimum, using the influence they have with their electors to teach them the limits of what is possible—as with the once quasi-revolutionary Syriza government in Greece.
But Italy is much bigger than Greece, and its people seem more dissatisfied and impatient. The experience of being on the front line of waves of desperate migrants, and the lack of real support from the European Union, has radicalized much of the working and lower-middle classes toward the Right. The voters deserted the centrist parties to elect parties they hardly knew. As interviews and polls show, they believed that past governments, some of them appointed rather than elected, had been more faithful to the diktats of the European Union and a German government that demanded cuts in public spending and thus living standards than to the people they were supposed to serve and protect. It is on the ability of the new government to serve and protect—which is much more constrained than they have admitted to their electors—that Italy’s political future, whether chaotic or purposeful, depends.
If these new tribunes of a disillusioned and impatient people reveal themselves as interested only in the possession of power rather than its use for the good of the citizenry, then a more extensive radicalization is likely. Italy needs to be treated with great care, both by the Union and by its new government. That demands a very rapid learning curve, hard, disciplined work, and a steady determination to renounce the temptations of power and money to which previous Italian governments have often succumbed. Italy may squeeze some more concessions from the European Union, but the new government must grasp that only Italians, properly and honestly led, can save this lovely, cultured country from sinking toward ruin.