Italy: The Politics of Frustration

Tommaso Milani
16 March 2018

“When France sneezes, Europe catches cold”: in these days, Count Metternich’s famous quip could arguably be extended to nearly all European democracies, whose precarious health reverberates on the whole Continent. The recent Italian elections were no exception: the stunning performance of the Five Star Movement and the Northern League, which won about half of the popular vote, sent shockwaves across the world. Le Monde reported them as “a triumph of anti-system forces.” David Leonhardt on The New York Times called the results “frightening.” In a gloomy assessment on the Financial Times, Martin Wolf contended that “the combination of economic malaise with political impotence has discredited not only Italy’s political and policymaking elite, but even the country’s engagement with the EU.”

 

In many respects, Italian developments seem to fit the prevailing narrative about the spread of populism in Southern and Central Europe, fueled by disenchantment with European integration, globalization, immigration, and austerity. And yet, looking beneath the surface, there are deeper themes to be addressed and wider lessons to be drawn, which may easily defy stereotypes and well-established explanatory patterns. This contribution tackles some of them, without aiming at providing a comprehensive interpretation of the Italian vote.

 

To begin with, it must be noted that in the Italian case the boundaries between mainstream and anti-establishment forces, at least in terms of rhetoric and strategic priorities, are extremely blurred. In an effort to fend off the mounting Eurosceptic tide within public opinion, the Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi has been targeting European institutions since 2014 for their alleged lack of fiscal flexibility, insufficient attention to growth, and poor democratic accountability. At the same time, he kept defending European integration in principle and even called for further steps towards a truly federal union. Facing a similar dilemma, Silvio Berlusconi sought to contain Eurosceptic parties by embracing them: he brokered an alliance with the Northern League and the nationalist Brothers of Italy while backing the current President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, as a potential Prime Minister.

 

Neither Renzi’s nor Berlusconi’s departure from Italy’s traditional pro-European consensus were particularly subtle, intellectually consistent, or carefully planned, and ended up lending an aura of respectability to rabid Euroscepticism. Nevertheless, the Janus-faced nature of its competitors certainly contributed to the Five Star Movement’s decision to remain deeply ambivalent on key issues such as EU membership or the Euro during the last campaign. Because of that, no party can now claim to have a clear mandate on European affairs, leaving room for middle-of-the-road policies that may strengthen the hand of the pro-Europeans, at least in the short run.

 

Second, Italy’s vote could serve as a cautionary tale against those who overestimate the power of electoral engineering in ensuring political stability. In fact, the election may also be seen as a major backlash against an almost thirty-year-long endeavor to turn Italy into a competitive democracy more similar to the British, the American, or the French model. It is worth stressing that in the first half of the 1990s, Italy replaced its proportional electoral system with an amended version of first-past-the-post. Combined with Mr. Berlusconi’s entry into politics, that change appeared to usher in further reforms that would bolster the authority of the Prime Minister, undercut the powers of the two Chambers, and simplify the cumbersome legislative process dictated by the Constitution. The underlying assumptions of those proposals, championed both by the center-right and the center-left, were that future elections would be contested by two opposing coalitions competing for a majority of the popular vote, and that the winning side could claim the right to form a strong and stable government.

 

Before the outbreak of the economic crisis, the reduction of political fragmentation was indeed well under way, and largely supported by the electorate: in 2008, more than 70% of the voters opted for one of the country’s two leading parties, and 85% of them cast their ballot either for the centre-right or for the centre-left alliance. However, since Beppe Grillo managed to drive a wedge into this still fragile bipolar structure, fears of an omnipotent executive and a “dictatorship of the majority” began to resurface. All of a sudden, the prospect of a party gaining a majority of seats with barely a quarter of the popular vote appeared disturbing to many, and Mr Renzi’s single-minded pursuit of a constitutional reform which encapsulated his winner-take-all philosophy led him to a crushing defeat in the 2016 referendum. In retrospect, dismissing the rise of the Five Star Movement as a temporary aberration was one of the biggest mistakes made by incumbent parties. That rise meant, among many other things, the demise of Italy’s embryonic two-party system, and the failure to adjust to the new reality is epitomised by the bewilderment of the moderates within Renzi’s and Berlusconi’s camps.

 

Third, it is far from obvious that Italy’s love affair with populism began with the booming of Mr Grillo’s grassroots movement. Arguably, its roots lie elsewhere, namely in the events of 1992-93, when the investigation Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) unveiled widespread corruption within the ruling class and brought about the downfall of virtually all parties that had run the country since 1948. Contrary to widespread expectations, the vacuum left by the Christian Democrats and the Socialists was not filled by the former Communists but by a highly unlikely alliance between Mr Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the post-fascist Italian Social Movement (soon rebranded National Alliance), and the secessionist Northern League, which run together on a stridently anti-establishment platform in the 1994 election and went on to score an upset victory. Although Mr Berlusconi’s contribution to Italian politics is far richer and multifaceted than that, his leadership was built on the sweeping axiom that professional politicians are inherently inept as well as corrupt, and that political parties should give place to electoral cartels run as if they were private companies. More than any other leader, he showed contempt for parliamentary politics and repeatedly called for the direct popular election of the Prime Minister as a way to smash his own coalition partners. All in all, Mr Berlusconi well deserves the title of “Knight of Anti-Politics”, as Gianfranco Pasquino put it, and his polarizing rhetoric even tainted important sections of the left, who equally refused to engage in any constructive dialogue with the centre-right under the premise that Mr Berlusconi was unfit to govern. When Mr. Renzi broke that unwritten rule, he came under fire for colluding with the enemy. Against that backdrop, it easier to see how Mr. Grillo’s vitriolic language against his opponents could find fertile ground and win over citizens that had been exposed to toxic slogans and messages for nearly three decades.

 

To conclude, it seems fair to say that Italy’s short-term prospects do not appear necessarily grim, whereas its long-term prospects are less reassuring. From a wider perspective, what is perhaps most disturbing is that Italy, rather than entering a brave new world, may have just taken another step down the road of what we may call the “politics of frustration.” In this never-ending vicious circle of enchantment and disenchantment, voters disappointed with the status quo turn to opposition parties which, in order to win, oversell their programme and make unreasonable commitments. When in office, having raised expectations too high, they prove unable to deliver and experience the fate of their predecessors. By doing so, however, they fuel widespread resentment towards the country’s allegedly dysfunctional institutions, providing breeding ground for new waves of demagoguery and extremism. It is no accident that Italy is the only major Western country in which during the past twenty-five years, not a single incumbent government has been re-elected. Rather than witnessing a transition from a party to another, Italians may now experience gridlock. Yet evidence suggests that the slow unravelling of their political system is far from over.

 

Photo credit: By Giorgio Brida – https://www.flickr.com/photos/giorgio_brida/4432263749/sizes/o/in/photostream/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12272856

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