After a two month deadlock following the elections of 4 March 2018, Italy’s Lega and Movimento Cinque Stelle populist parties are taking part in talks and have come to a conclusive deal which will lead them to become the new Italian leadership. Claiming to be “writing history”, E&M’s resident Italian editors, Francesca Monticelli and Nicoletta Enria, reflect on what this “historic alliance” means for Italy and Europe.
Francesca: Italy will be left with a populist melange to rule
Just last week we were celebrating Schuman Day, reminding ourselves of the precious foundations that constitute the European Union. Not long ago, also, a landslide populist party victory in Italy that led to a hung parliament, reverberating a tsunami of euro scepticism. And last week the populist parties, Movimento Cinque Stelle (centre) and Lega (far-right) announced they have plunged back into fiscal discussions to form an alliance. Once enemies during the elections in March the leaders Matteo Salvini (Lega) and Luigi di Maio (M5S) are now talking about a coalition government that’ll promote an anti-EU agenda, dire immigration policies and reinforce Italy’s relationship with Russia. I can’t begin to fathom what will happen next.
But the biggest problem is that there is no other option but this coalition because a hung parliament is unsustainable in the long run. So, Italy will be left with a populist melange to rule. And can you blame Italians for succumbing to populism? On the one hand intervention from the EU to prevent what will be an economic catastrophe in Italy isn’t feasible. On the other hand I wish it were.
It’s no surprise there is political chaos in a country that has been ruled by leaders who are and have been unfit to lead for over two decades. With the strongest anti-EU rhetoric to date, the coalition emits a strong signal to neighbouring EU countries that Italy will plunge into darkness on its own. Italy desperately needs a government to steer the country in a direction, albeit will be the wrong direction. But it cannot go back to the voting polls in December or Italy’s democratic foundations of an elected parliament will topple over. This is a nightmare waiting to unfold. And I fear that in the end, by the time Italy wakes up, it’ll be too late and the EU will have developed and shaped itself into a better institution without it.
Nicoletta: Will this alliance be a wake up call for Italian liberal democracy?
A metaphor by professor Benjamin Arditi has always stuck with me and I found it particularly relevant for these elections and this alliance:
“Populism resembles a drunken guest at a dinner party: he’s not respecting table manners, he is rude, he might even start flirting with the wives of other guests but he might also be blurting out truth about liberal democracy that has become forgetful of popular sovereignty”.
Despite the problematic heteronormative slant of this quote, I think it provides powerful insights into why this alliance has been able to materialise. I’m in no way suggesting that Lega and M5S will actually correct of the flawed state of liberal democracy in Italy, if anything most populist scholarship shows that populist parties tend to fail when in power – as their existence is founded on them being an opposition to the establishment. What I mean to say is that this vote was more than ‘ignorant voters’, it was a cry for help for an electorate that has been left behind, and disenfranchised. Italians were desperate for any form of change and to be heard. The saddest news is that this is almost certainly not to come with this terrifying alliance, which will probably only plummet Italy further in what has seemed to be a never-ending downwards spiral.
Populism resembles a drunken guest at a dinner party: he’s not respecting table manners, he is rude, he might even start flirting with the wives of other guests but he might also be blurting out truth about liberal democracy that has become forgetful of popular sovereignty
If anything, Arditi’s metaphor, is most importantly a powerful reminder for Italy’s social democratic parties, to wake up. The Democratic Party, who had been in power until now, must realise how disconnected it is from Italians, become more approachable and relatable to avoid collapsing completely. If M5S’s radical democracy, where they vote on all policies on their online platform Rousseau (owned by a private company which may or may not have influence on the polling outcomes), became appealing because Italians felt too disconnected from opaque decision-making and elite representatives. M5S were able to tap into these feelings, offering powerful rhetoric promising to resolve them, and incredibly weak policies to match. Yet, populism will always be somewhat of a shadow of democratic procedures, it must however prompt questions on what current failures of representation are? We need to engage with populism not as a pathological outlier, but to reflect harder on such questions.
Now, populism is not new to Italy, with decades of Silvio Berlusconi and the catastrophe that that was. The opposition must wake up and stay critical. Also, it is time for young Italians to take back a political debate that has continued to cast them aside. As daunting as it may seem, join your party, whichever it may be, and voice your concerns. This alliance will impact us most strongly, and the burden unfortunately falls on us to try bring some effective change and steer Italian political debate away from hate and divisive rhetoric, towards inclusivity, diversity and hopefully, eventually, prosperity.