Italy’s populist coalition

Elly Schlein outlines the dangers of the new populist/rightist coalition

Three months after the Italian general election, which represented a real shock for the national political framework, a new government was sworn in on the June 1st. Led by Giuseppe Conte, a politically inexperienced academic, with the support of the Five Star Movement (M5S, with 32% the largest vote share) in coalition with the extreme right, former secessionist party Northern League (that managed to overcome Berlusconi within the centre-right coalition with 17% of the votes).

After protracted negotiations the two parties adopted a contract as a programme of their government.  It includes contradictory measures (a flat tax and a minimum income scheme, just to mention two of them) which will be impossible to implement. While commentators were still reading through the contract and trying to figure out how to define such a coalition, it took less than two weeks for the new Minister of Interior, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, to make it clear.

The first three moves were to risk a diplomatic crisis by claiming that Tunisia “is only sending criminals to our country”, to announce a political alliance with Viktor Orbán “to rewrite EU rules”, and to close down the harbours and leave the Aquarius ship in the middle of the sea with its 629 desperate people fleeing the hell of Libyan jails. With these three moves he completely overshadowed both the new Prime Minister and the M5S giving a strong signal to the EU: the nationalists are growing on a common front. There is a paradox when it comes to the new nationalists: they’re strengthening each other with the same rhetoric of hatred and walls, that in the end would put them one against the other. In such a context both the EU and Italian people have a lot to be worried about.

To understand this unprecedented situation, we need a deeper analysis of the March election. At the last elections, the centre-right coalition, formed by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the extreme right Northern League and Fratelli d’Italia, emerged as the biggest block with around 37% of the votes. This outcome was again expected and foreseen in the polls during the campaign. The real surprise was the impressive result of the Northern League that for the first time overtook its ally Forza Italia, questioning Berlusconi´s undisputed role as leader of the coalition.

The M5S, founded by the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 and led by Luigi di Maio, became the largest party. Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party was outdistanced by M5S recording its worst result in its history, with about 19% of the votes, halving the historic 41% obtained in 2014 European elections, and confirming the crisis of European social democracy.

The result was unexpected by other forces on the left, including the recently established left coalition ‘Liberi e Uguali’ led by the former president of the Senate Pietro Grasso. The coalition, aimed at creating unity between Possibile, Sinistra Italiana and Movimento Democratico Progressista, was unable to offer a convincing alternative and innovative leadership and lists. It just exceeded the 3% threshold, entering Parliament with 18 MPs.

What led to such an outcome? First of all, there was clearly a strong wave of protest against ‘the system’, against a political class that has been basically the same over the last 20 years and has failed to address the structural problems of the country or deliver the answers the citizens need. The winning forces have managed to present themselves as something new and with no responsibilities for the failures of the past, despite the fact that the Northern League participated in previous Berlusconi governments, despite the internal democracy issues and the disappointing performance of the M5S in governing Rome.

The protest is also the sign of an entire country struggling because of the persistent economic crisis since 2007. This has affected people’s income and well-being – the middle class in particular – but also their expectations about the future. For the first time since the end of World War Two, living conditions have dramatically worsened through the crisis, and sons and daughters face a much more difficult and precarious situation than their parents had in previous years.

Yet, the country appears deeply divided not only in terms of inclusion, but also geographically. The map of the electoral results cuts the country in half: the colours of the League in the Northern area (the League started as a regional secessionist party, and was recently transformed, under the leadership of Matteo Salvini, into a nationalistic party of Le-Penist imprint); and the colours of the Five Star Movement in the Southern area.

The main reforms pushed by former Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, became very unpopular among citizens. The employment reforms drastically decreased the rights of workers and increased labour market flexibility, but failed to deliver the promised results (90% of the new contracts are time limited). The school reform, aimed at imposing a business oriented management of education, raised protests by both teachers and students across the country. Even on environment the choices of the youngest Prime Minister in Italy’s history were quite conservative: no embrace of a new and more sustainable model of development based on limiting emissions, energy efficiency and renewable sources, or opposition to the concrete and oil lobbies.

In summary, the Democratic Party-led coalition governments were criticised for adopting right-wing policies, with very few exceptions. This created a fracture with traditional centre-left voters, who either abstained, or decided to vote for what they perceived as a radical change.

Furthermore, the Democratic Party suffered from the strong rejection of the constitutional reform with the referendum held in December 2016, which led to Renzi’s resignation as Prime Minister. However, the resignation did not bring any self-criticism or a real change in the line of the government led by his successor Gentiloni.

The March vote was not so much an anti-European vote, since the winning forces decided not to campaign openly against the Euro (even if both the Northern League and the M5S were quite openly against it in the past).

Yet, the stance of the M5S on the Euro is also, at best, ambiguous. In the past few years its positions have been markedly anti-European, to the point that the Movement had supported the idea of a referendum on Italy’s exit from the Eurozone. It even formed an alliance with Nigel Farage’s Ukip in the European Parliament. More recently, however, the M5S has gradually shifted to a more nuanced, eurosceptic posture. At the same time the vote appears to be a vote against big coalition governments, as the voters expressed a strong negative judgement on the last four big coalition governments and punished the two forces that kept that option on the table, namely the Democratic party and Forza Italia. Funnily enough, we ended up with a new big coalition government between two forces that in the campaign were opposing the idea, but also opposing one another.

Their success can also partially be explained by their policies for the economy. On the one hand, the institution of a flat tax, pièce de resistance of the League and much to the liking of the industrial North’s demands for a lower fiscal pressure. On the other, the introduction of a basic income for citizens promised by M5S, appealed to the Southern voters torn apart by unemployment.

Both parties have also exploited the issue of migration, fanning the flames of the hardship faced by Italy with respect to the reception of migrants. Italy was indeed left alone, alongside Greece, to receive those fleeing war, torture, extreme poverty and hunger. The failure of the relocation mechanism stands as an example of the national selfishness of European partners. Of 160,000 relocations promised by EU Member States, only 30,000 migrants have actually been relocated from Italy and Greece in two years. The political forces that have used a stronger language against migrants and promised harder measures on irregular migration and massive returns, have managed to boost their support following the wave of other extreme right and nationalist forces in other countries.

It is difficult to predict how the balance within the new government’s partners will develop. But one thing is certain, the country has gone to the right, therefore the progressive, left and green forces, in all their forms, must really get their act together. We need to reconnect with the most vulnerable, the excluded, the many that feel left out and deprived of any hope for their future. It means rebuilding a vision that puts centre-stage the fight against inequalities, fighting the xenophobic rhetoric that directs people’s anger towards migrants, while hiding much bigger issues, like multinational companies evading taxes and stealing huge resources that could be used for welfare services and improving the lives of citizens.

It’s going to be a long and difficult path to regain credibility and trust. But no-one else will do it for us, so we’ll have to get even more engaged, to build a common project that offers new solutions based on old values to the challenges on which our future is at stake: migration, climate change, tax justice, common foreign policy, and the social dimension of the EU that is still underdeveloped. But since these are all European and global challenges, we have to face them together at the right level. That’s why, in order to confront the global front of the nationalists, we need a European front of the left, progressives and environmentalists. We should resist the polarization between establishment and nationalism and find our space by pushing for a radical change of EU policies and structure, in order to give substance to the same principle of solidarity that today is dangerously at risk. Without solidarity there is no European Union. Let’s build it for real.

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