The Red Takes the Place of the Green—The Yellow is Fading, and the Future is Grey

2019 09 | Alessandro D'Onofrio | EU-V4 Department | Foreign and Security Policy

The crazy Italian political crisis seems to come to an end, and its epilogue could be considered a masterpiece of political opportunism and incoherence—in a nutshell, a classic Italian mess.Although it shakes off the fears of an “Italexit” and reassures Italy’s European partners, the formation of the second unexpected governing coalition in a row leaves many losers and only a few winners.

 

Definitively excluding the possibility of holding an early election, President Mattarella has entrustedGiuseppe Conte with the task of forming a new government. In the following hours, Conte, who could be the only point of continuity with the former yellow-green executive, will make a list of ministers chosen from relevant personalities close to the new coalition forces. As many have already pointed out, Zingaretti’s Democratic Party will obtain some of the most important ministries, namely that of Economy, Defence, and the Interior. Furthermore, the party will also have the chance to choose Italy’s next European Commission candidate—marking a significant change of direction from the previous government. As the PD’s Secretary affirmed, the new executive should represent a turning point and act under the sign of discontinuity between the new cabinet and the last fourteen months. He also added that re-emphasizing the pro-European stances of the country will be the first step in this direction. During his first pronouncement after meeting Mattarella, Conte said that Italy “must recover the lost time” and that his government will “work immediately to propose a manoeuvre that will eschew the debated VAT increase, protect the savers, and have a solid perspective of growth and social development.” It comes as no surprise that Brussels and the international markets showed enthusiasm about the formation of the yellow-red coalition, and they will probably be ready to grant the financial flexibility the country needs.

Giuseppe Conte has been named as the new prime minister, and, in the following days, he will form his governing team.

Source: Shutterstock

Therefore, the crazy Italian political crisis comes to an end, and its epilogue could be considered a masterpiece of political opportunism and incoherence—in a nutshell, a classical Italian mess. Although it shakes off the fears of an “Italexit” and reassures Italy’s European partners, the formation of the second unexpected governing coalition in a row leaves many losers and only a few winners. No doubt, the front runner of the losers’ faction can only be Salvini. The League’s leader got the political crisis going on his own, roaring like a lion from one beach to another and believing presumingly that the opinion polls would give him a sort of untouchability. But he was probably unaware that when you start a war against everybody—the institutions, the EU, and your governing allies—then everybody will be at war with you. And so it was: full of self-confidence, Salvini made his move exactly when everybody expected it, and his opponents were ready to react.

As a result, the Captain will now have to watch all his bitter rivals and former friends sharing the power while he will have a seat in the opposition benches, next to the Cavaliere, who will have the chance to ask him, “Didn’t I tell you?” Surely, Berlusconi will use Salvini’s disappointment to try to have a central role in rebuilding the centre-right coalition because, after opposing the 5Stars–PD understanding and failing to have elections in October, this is the only chance for Forza Italia to stay afloat. However, according to opinion polls, the League still remains the biggest political party, and, in all probability, a failure of this new governing coalition will add fresh water to Salvini’s existing voter base. The rhetoric of betrayal and old powers directed by Brussels and plotting to run counter to the will of the Italian people will be the leitmotiv of the next months until the League bubble will burst. On 19 October, Salvini called for public protest against a government “created by Paris and Brussels.” We will see if the man who promised—and miserably failed—to change Europe is able to regain political prominence, at least in his own country.

The second-biggest loser of this crisis is surely the Five Star Movement. The party has already lost a lot of credibility when decided to form a government with the League in the not-so-far June 2018, alienating in this way its most leftist electorate. Fourteen months of government demonstrated that Di Maio and Co. were nothing more than a colourful group of amateurs, easy to fall into the web of a more experienced politician, like Salvini, and ready to support all his extremist excesses even at the cost of disowning their ideals and without presenting a clear counterbalance to his requests.

However, the icing on the cake in this miraculous—as well as embarrassing—transformist pattern is the 5Star’s decision to start a new government with the Democratic Party. In less than one month, the party has passed from crying, “Never with the PD!” to starting a detailed discussion on the distribution of ministries with its old-time rivals. And now, although Zingaretti had to accept some of the 5Star’s requests (such as Conte as Prime Minister), the Movement’s thirst for power went so far as to betray its faith in direct democracy. As a sop to their feelings, 5Star’s activists will be given the opportunity to have the final say on the new alliance through a vote on the Movement’s private online platform. However, even if activists vote against the alliance, it is highly unlikely that the party will decide to quit Conte’s new government before creating it.

Another problem is linked to the choice of ministers for the new government. It is the PD and 5Star’s wish that, in order to stem the tide of Salvini’s authoritarianism spreading throughout Italy, the posts should be given to respected specialists from the academic and professional world. However, this choice will pose an existential question to the Movement. In fact, while the PD has many such figures in its ranks, the Movement terribly misses them, making the chance that the bulk of the new ministers and undersecretaries will be appointed with a background closer to the left a more likely outcome.

As for the future, two are the main issues for the 5Stars. The first is the future of the Movement itself. In fact, after showing that Di Maio and Co. are everything and its opposite, the Movement must finally find its final position within the political spectrum. The recent experience gained in the government should have made the 5Star understand that the Italian electorate is not so keen on the post-ideological mindset, and, whenever the movement tried to move towards the right, it lost votes in favour of the League. Now, to all appearances, the PD will benefit from the leftist change in direction by the Movement, showing that, in any case, voters would rather stay with the original version than a copy.

The second issue the 5Star will face in the next future will be the problem of leadership. In fact, from the last fourteen months in government, Di Maio’s did not gain in popularity within or without his party. The thirty-three-old leader has admirably been overshadowed by Salvini’s hyperactivism on the one hand, and by Conte’s great professionalism and Christian democrat-style capacity of acting as a mediator on the other. Moreover, the 5Star’s establishment is also pressing for a radical volte-face, and less moderate figures could take over Di Maio’s role. In the meantime, the 5Star’s leader is stamping his feet to maintain his post as deputy prime minister in the new executive—but he is finding opposition from the Democratic Party. The Movement, which seemed to be the long-awaited revolution in Italian politics, is likely to go through a crisis period in the near future. The 5Star have today an identity complex; the solution for this crisis is probably a return to the origins. Retracing its steps and acting as the defender of issues such as the environment, civil rights, social justice and fight against corruption—which made possible the rise of the Movement to the centre of the political stage—would be highly beneficial to the 5Star given the fact that there is an unexplainable lack of political forces committed to these matters in Italy.

 

Nicola Zingaretti, the PD’s new Secretary

Source: Shutterstock

As for the Democratic Party, this crisis has been the trigger point for the usual and never resolved conflict between Renzi’s acolytes and the heirs of the post-communist tradition, who still form the leading group within the PD. Despite an encouraging growth in the party’s voter base—which went up from 19% at the general elections last year to 23% at the European elections this year—the internal divisions will be devastating at the moment of recognition and will give an enormous advantage to a renewed centre-right. The decision to form a government with the 5Star could be better understood in terms of a leadership competition because there is no other reason for it. In fact, a return to the vote could have delivered the coup de grâce to the 5Star—which, according to surveys, is at its lowest ebb—and restore the centre-left as the main opponent of the League and its friends. But internal disputes have prevailed. On the one hand, Zingaretti, who initially supported an early election and vetoed Conte as new prime minister, accepted to form a governing coalition probably in an attempt to gain time, sensing that his leadership is still not as solid as he had thought. On the other hand, Renzi is pretending to act as an unselfish actor, but his malicious assent to an unnatural and unproductive pact with the 5Star is directed at making the PD seen in a bad light and reinforcing his position within the party or as the leader of a new liberal and pro-European force. Whatever the result, the traditional division within the left is likely to favour the return of the populists and the far-right to the power.

A special mention must be made of the President of the Republic. Mattarella cannot be defined as a loser in this antagonism, but neither is he a winner. Undoubtedly, Mattarella is the unluckiest president Italy has ever had since the end of WW2, as he has to deal with the most unreliable and unqualified political class the country has ever had. Moreover, his task is even more difficult because he must be very cautious of using the powers the Constitution grants him as to the creation of new executives. However, in certain circumstances, a technical government must be intended more as a necessity than the abuse of power by the president, even if Mattarella is surely trying to avoid taking such a decision, learning from the experience of his predecessor, Giorgio Napolitano—maliciously dubbed “King Giorgio.” In fact, as many think, the former technical governments, appointed by Napolitano, have been the ideological fuel for the populist resentment which has upset Italy’s political balance in the last years.

 

42.8% of Italians would prefer going to a new election than trying with the new government.

Source: Shutterstock

But let us come to the biggest losers in this competition: Italians. According to recent polls, the majority of them did not like the yellow-green government’s work and do not favour the birth of a yellow-red coalition. In fact, the preferred option—at least for those interviewed—was going to vote. As already mentioned, the League would have probably been the big winner of an election in October, but, despite Salvini’s boasting declarations, the real and only winning party which would end up a few votes away from the absolute majority would be the “non-voters party.” In fact, during the last months of the League–5Star government, the disaffection of Italians towards politics grew even more—a clear sign of the huge gap that exists between people’s expectations and political outcomes. Still, according to the same polls, jobs—or the lack of them—are Italians’ biggest concerns; an issue that the previous government was not able to manage in an appropriate way. The League concentrated too hard on showing that Italy’s main problem is immigration, and the 5Star—which, with Di Maio, held the competent ministry—decided to tackle the issue with granting some profoundly paternalistic income subsidies. Italy’s sluggish economy and a zero-growth forecast do hold out little hope of a bright future, and the increasing burden of the national debt, which could only be reduced by increasing the fiscal pressure, will get the country even more on its knees. “How will Italians react to a new crisis and how desperate will they be after a further reduction of their wealth?” this is the big question which needs to be addressed by all the responsible political forces in Italy and in Europe.