Will Italy become the first country to fall to populism?

19 May 2018

9:00 AM

19 May 2018

9:00 AM

It looks indeed as if Italy — the beating pulse of European civilisation — will be the first country in western Europe to fall to what’s popularly known as populism. Those who regard populism as an affirmation of democracy are pleased; those who regard it as a negation of democracy are appalled. The markets remain silent. For the moment.

The alt-left Five Star is on the verge of forming a coalition government with the hard-right Lega in the EU’s fourth largest economy, which has been stuck in more or less permanent stagnation since the global banking crisis of 2008. These two opposing expressions of popular revolt, described by the ever so civilised FT on Monday as ‘the modern barbarians’ at the gates of Rome, are busy in secret trying to find a politician who can be their prime minister and draft a contract of government which will not cause them to tear each other to shreds within months of taking office.

On Tuesday, a leaked copy of this document was published revealing that, despite their deliberate silence on such matters during the election campaign, Lega and Five Star have not given up their shared hostility to the euro or their shared desire to abolish sanctions against Russia, and though they want Italy to remain in Nato, to ‘rehabilitate’ Russia as a ‘strategic mediator’ in crisis zones such as Syria. Specifically, the contract includes a proposal to create an opt-out mechanism for eurozone countries to leave the euro in an ‘agreed manner’, were there to be a ‘clear popular will’ to do so. It also proposes ‘radical reform’ of the EU, in particular of the Stability and Growth Pact which compels member states to keep budget deficits below 3 per cent of GDP.

To tackle Italy’s staggering €2.3 trillion public debt — the third highest in the advanced world as a percentage of GDP (at 132 per cent) — the document includes a demand that the European Central Bank writes off €250 billion worth of Italian sovereign bonds bought under its massive quantitative easing programme begun in 2012 to save the euro. Both the Five Star and the Lega swiftly issued statements to say that the document was ‘old’ and already ‘radically changed’. It is dated 14 May — i.e. Monday!

Whatever your views on populism, what is happening in Italian politics makes it crystal clear that Italians, like so many people throughout Europe, believe that their governments and the European Union have failed them. The Italians were once the most Europhile people in Europe. Now — especially the young — they are among the most hostile. And they really are sick to death of those among their countrymen and women who have wheedled their way into membership of the corrupt and obscenely overpaid political class which has dominated Italian politics since the early 1990s — or since the last political class, which was even more rotten and overpaid, was booted out.

Just six months ago, the thought of an alliance between the Five Star and the Lega — as virulently opposed to each other as communists and fascists were before the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — was laughable. When, at the start of the election campaign last October, Matteo Salvini, the 45-year-old leader of the Lega, floated the idea — in the event of the inconclusive election result that was all but guaranteed by Italy’s bonkers electoral system — Luigi Di Maio, Five Star’s 31-year-old leader, retorted that ‘if Salvini thinks he can rebuild his political virginity with the wink of the eye … and an alliance with us he is utterly wrong. I repeat for the umpteenth time: Five Star will not make alliances with the parties that have destroyed our country.’

Yet ever since the election on 4 March duly did fail to give any party or coalition enough seats to form a majority, Di Maio (from Naples) has been locked in talks with Salvini (from Milan) to form just such an alliance. Five Star has only ever contested two elections, yet it secured 33 per cent of the votes, more than any other party. The Coalition of the Right — led by the Lega and including the media tycoon and four-times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s party Forza Italia — got 37 per cent but fell short of the 40 per cent required to win a majority of seats in Parliament. Talks to cobble together a government of enemies got nowhere at first, because Five Star refused to form a government which included Berlusconi, the man it sees as the epitome of all that is rotten in Italy. And Lega, or rather Salvini, refused to abandon him.

It looked as if the only alternatives were either a government of independent experts — an emergency solution often resorted to in Italy and despised by most Italians as a betrayal of democracy — or else new elections under the same electoral system that is incapable of producing a winner. That was until last Wednesday, when 81-year-old Berlusconi fell on his sword — for the sake of La Patria, he said — and withdrew from the coalition. At a stroke the door opened to the formation of a Five Star-Lega coalition government.

There is a proverb in Italy: an act of altruism is an act of egotism. Berlusconi’s decision was also egotistical. Like many Italians, he had decided that it is better to let the Five Star, which he defines as ‘a sect’, govern, and thus give them the rope to hang themselves. The Italians have seen, for example, the complete mess the Five Star mayor of Rome Virginia Raggi has made of governing the Eternal City since 2016.

The incoming coalition are as different as lucciole and lanterne (fireflies and lanterns). Five Star was founded nine years ago by the Genovese comedian turned political ranter and raver Beppe Grillo, an Italian Billy Connolly. The Lega was founded in 1989 by Umberto Bossi, an Italian Nigel Farage, and they are sworn enemies. But they share a hatred of the global elites and that, for now, seems almost enough.

Even by Italian standards, what is going on is very odd. It is exciting because it is different — but it is scary, though not necessarily for the reasons the mainstream media supply. Five Star is scarier than the Lega, because it is far less democratic and its beliefs far more of a threat to liberty.

The ‘V’ in MoVimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement) stands for Vaffa! (‘Fuck off’, roughly), which is the movement’s signature slogan, and they mean it. It’s a curse especially aimed at the banks, big business, political parties and politicians. Five Star even despises the idea of parliament — everything except wind farms and ‘la decrescita felice’ (happy economic decline). Its big idea is to replace parliamentary democracy with direct democracy on the internet.

Italy is hardly known for stable government. And if a populist government collapses, what next? We should not quite yet forget Berlusconi. For donkey’s years he was a top-ten hate figure of the global liberal elite but their only hope at the elections, as the head of a centrist coalition of left and right to stop the awful populist barbarians. And the global elite and the EU will not take all this populist stuff in Italy lying down.

Berlusconi seems to have been rewarded for his act of self-sacrifice. Two days later, a Milan court announced out of the blue that it was lifting his five-year ban from public office imposed in 2013 along with a four-year prison sentence for tax evasion. He now looks like a mummy back from the dead, his face masked in make-up and his head caked with dyed transplanted hair. He had been unable to stand as a candidate in the election. Now he can.

So il Cavaliere (‘the Knight’, as his supporters call him) may just have to ride out one last time to save Italy — not from the commies anymore, but from the populists. Crazier things have happened — in Italy they happen every day.

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