The pride before the fall
To understand this week's turmoil in Italy we must first take a short step back.
In February 2014 Matteo Renzi started what would turn out to be two and a half years of well-intentioned but ineffective centre-left rule as Prime Minister. Here was the youngest leader in modern Italian history - a political outsider known as 'the scrapper' - with a bold proposal to dig deep into the traditions of Italian parliamentary democracy, to break it at the roots, and to turn over new soil.
We say Renzi was well-intentioned because Italian constitutional laws are at best a confusing thicket and at worst an ossified system that stifles democratic norms. So change has been long overdue. We say he was ineffective because he was trounced in the 2016 referendum on his proposed constitutional reforms, and forced to step down as Prime Minister.
Renzi's Partito Democratico was riven by insurrection in 2017 whereupon he duly seized the helm. And when President Sergio Mattarella called for a general election towards the end of the year, the "scrapper" was ready for another tilt. Unfortunately for him, while he was busy consolidating power within the party, Renzi's opponents in Lega (formerly known as Lega Nord - the Northern League) and Movimento 5 Stelle (the Five Star Movement, or simply MS5) had ballooned in popularity. On March 4th this year Italians voted in no uncertain terms
: Renzi was again handed a severe defeat. The upstart populists in MS5 won nearly twice as many seats in the Chamber of Deputies as Renzi's PD did; Lega more than doubled that figure.
Yet nearly three months have elapsed since the election and Italy has had no government
. We can discern some of the reasons why in the makeup of MS5 and Lega; they are in a sense victims of their own success.
A crude sketch description of Lega would highlight the racism of its early days but the party has come a long way since 1991. Even so, they are still renown for fierce anti-immigration policies (despite, one could note, their primary voting bloc living farthest from the refugee-choked streets of Catania and Naples). It is a party of Eurosceptics who have advocated departure from the monetary union. Party leader Matteo Salvini has been particularly forceful on the matter. There is even an active minority within Lega that still advocates for Padania (the area north of the Po River) to secede from Italy. While this is an extreme position, it's one that is held by a vocal minority of northern Italians.
MS5 is a mixed bag and a fascinating one at that. Founded in 2009 by a popular comedian, MS5 has made the leap from protest vote to political powerhouse. Its ideology can be hard to pin down but one thing is for certain, its leaders are experts at leveraging voter anxieties. MS5 make a mockery of the 'left vs right' duality; while some describe them as the 'New Right', others point to their full-throated support of left-wing bastions: environmentalism, anti-establishment beliefs and a limited basic income. MS5 is at the cutting edge of Europe - pushing for direct democracy, advocating for politics to be a limited service rather than a lifetime profession, and advancing social justice issues like same-sex marriage. However, its leaders have played coy on big ticket items like illegal immigration and the European Union. And their deputies have at times resorted to threats, bullying and outright violence within parliament itself.
Not so fast
One reason for the delayed formation of government has been MS5's vow to never work with another political party, let alone one (Lega) - a group supported by arch-enemy Silvio Berlusconi. Lega promised the same in return. Ultimately, however, neither promise amounted to much because the two populist parties finally decided to bury the hatchet
. They plucked Giuseppe Conte (a law professor) apparently out of thin air and tasked him with forming government as Prime Minister. Conte's radical pick for the finance ministry Paola Savona was then slapped down by Italy's President on Sunday. The ageing radical Savona has previously described Italy's adoption of the Euro a "historic error". Conte immediately resigned his position in protest.
The President then instructed the caretaker Prime Minister to form a cabinet with technocrats and just get on with the job. But both MS5 and Lega slammed that decision
and made clear that they would shoot down any cabinet not of their choosing. Liugi di Maio - MS5's representative at the general election - even called for the President himself to be impeached. Yet as Tuesday faded into Wednesday and the quagmire continued it appeared as though some of the very firm positions of MS5 and Lega were starting to become malleable. On Thursday the two parties finally decided to cut their losses and propose a new cabinet - a proposal that Italy's very relieved President duly accepted.
Out of the woods?
Not quite. Conte most now form government. And while he himself may be an unknown quantity, many within his cabinet are not. Lega's Salvini will take the top job within the interior ministry
, an appointment that has galled many Italians. The openly xenophobic Salvini has promised to pursue the closure of refugee camps, force deportations and crack down on Islam. And while the firebrand Savona missed out on guiding Rome's finance policy he will remain a thorn in the side
of Brussels as the minister for the EU. The finance position meanwhile has been given to the political novice Giovanni Tria.
The prospect of a new vote earlier this week shook the international monetary markets, and European finance chiefs
remain deeply concerned. When Greece flirted with the idea of leaving the monetary union three years ago the global markets were hammered; Italy's economy is ten times the size of Greece's. Exacerbating these fears is the fact that the Italian banking system is on the verge of collapse, as witnessed by the nationalisation of Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena. Italy's skyrocketing debt is also only going to expand as the new government pursues a flat tax rate while simultaneously instituting a citizen's income.
Italy's new government must be given the benefit of doubt, and a chance to lead the country. But let's not harbour any illusions: the coalition comprises two ambitious upstarts that have little in common other than a host of disparate, untested ideologies. Without a doubt, there'll be significantly more to come on this story.