Listening to Italy
Attempting to write about Italy’s political scene with topical relevance is increasingly difficult. It is just as unresolved and unstable for the third month running; everything could change as the article goes to press. But, as the Roman, Pliny the Elder said: In these matters the only certainty is that there is nothing certain.
The General Election of 4 March was inconclusive, as predicted. The populist, Five Star Movement (M5S) and their new leader Luigi Di Maio received the largest vote share of a single party, but insufficient to form a government at 225 out of a total of 618 seats. The Centre Right coalition headed by Silvio Berlusconi came second as a group. The significance of the Centre Right’s success is that Matteo Salvini, leader of La Lega (previously Lega Nord) polled more votes than Berlusconi with a total of 122 seats. It took Berlusconi more than a month to shut-up and accept that Salvini had won the right to speak independently of him.
Votes for the increasingly unpopular, internally-warring, Centre Left Partito Democratico (Pd) collapsed as expected.
Di Maio and Salvini worked to form a coalition. They nominated a politically-inexperienced lawyer, Giuseppe Conte to act as their Prime Minister. Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old prominent, euro-hating economist was then nominated as Finance Minister. The national President, Sergio Mattarella, vetoed the appointment of Savona – who calls the Euro: “Italy’s noose”. Conte then withdrew his nomination. There are fully constitutional Presidential precedents here; both Matteo Renzi and Silvio Berlusconi accepted similar vetoes and nominated another candidate.
Mattarella swiftly appointed a Euro-supporting economist, Carlo Cottarelli, to head a fresh interim technocratic government. Ignoring Di Maio and Salvini’s lengthy attempts to work together. Il Fatto Quotidiano‘s 29 May headline summarised the lack of parliamentary support for Cottarelli’s impending confidence vote as: “Cottarelli is born dead”. Social media then burst forth with a “tsunami” of vilification and death threats for Mattarella. – it was suggested that this was orchestrated. He justified his reasoning by stating very calmly and seriously that he must take responsibility for minimising the financial panic that was rapidly developing at home and abroad.
It was widely seen in Italy as a move by Brussels to actively control the country once again. (Mario Monte had been appointed by The EU to lead a technocratic government after the Berlusconi debt crisis in 2011.) There was censure but also support for Mattarella. The EU-supporting Pd’s (Partito Democratico) website immediately gave their support. A tweet from Marine Le Pen was reported in the Italian press for saying what many people felt: “Coup in Italy, EU and the (financial) markets confiscate democracy”.
The crisis brings such very clear threats to the economies of Italy and Europe that the UK press are now reporting it widely. Meanwhile several interesting threads can be picked out of the Italian press.
Italians are disenchanted with the political class that they see as a self-serving elite. Many also see the press as complicit in the reluctance to listen to the voters. On 25 May Antonio Padellaro contrasted a tiny paragraph in Corriere della Sera about how 3000 nurses had applied for 5 posts in Turin with the multiple pages that chewed over the nomination of Carlo Conte. He maintained that the press are only interested in selecting their own reality to write about. The rest of us, he says, are like the 2995 nurses who didn’t get those jobs. They are losers and he is just another of the 17 million losers who voted for M5S and Lega because they needed to have their voices heard.
Europe may be seen by Mattarella as ensuring financial stability but Lorenzo Rocchi blogging in Il Fatto Quotidiano expressed a disenchantment that many agree with. Rocchi said: “There are feelings shared in the country, not just among M5S and Lega voters, that people have been ignored for too long. There is annoyance for the impositions of Europe, for the management of immigration (i.e: to close the borders to those who arrive in Italy), …the concerns of new generations of semi-poor”. Hence the antagonism to Mattarella’s move, to the nomination of Carlo Cottarelli – an expenditure cutter – “Mr Scissors”, at Europe’s behest.
Two interesting elements lay behind Economist Carlo Savona’s controversial nomination and they amount to a second coup or unusual political interference.
The first analyses the relative positions of Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini in their coalition. They polled 32% and 17% respectively in the March election. Di Maio with almost double the number of votes could have, in fact should have, asserted his position. He didn’t. The same Lorenzo Rocchi as above accuses him of committing political suicide. In trusting Salvini, in taking 80 days not to resolve matters, and not trying to push for a more widely acceptable Finance Minister all show him to be: a “chicken”, translated as a dope. “The leader of the M5S had the opportunity….”. The experienced senior Lega politician and economist Giancarlo Giorgetti would have been a suitable nominee instead of Savona as Finance Minister. Why wasn’t he suggested?
The reason behind this, and the second point, is that there are now multiple references in the press to Salvini using Savona’s nomination, shockingly and shamelessly, as a lever to precipitate a political crisis. First to discredit and remove Luigi Di Maio from interfering with his climb to the top. Of the two, Salvini clearly has the more assertive voice and developed strategic direction, whatever the merits of his programme. The second is that he knew President Mattarella, appointed by Renzi’s Euro-friendly government, would have no option but to veto Savona because he could try to pull Italy out of the Euro. Particularly as Salvini has frequently and stridently expressed his antipathy in the press to the Euro and the controlling power of Germany.
On 30 May there was a last attempt by Di Maio to revive the alliance with Salvini and form a government. Mattarella put Cottarelli on standby and allowed more time. Di Maio can now clearly be seen to lack judgement. Immediately after Mattarella’s veto of Savona, Di Maio called for the President to be impeached. He then flopped and changed his mind. He said that the 81-year-old Savona could have another ministry if it helped to bring the new government plans to fruition.
As the Italian crisis developed, the cunning Salvini bided his time, carefully calculating what to say. “Those who insult and threaten Mattarella are not part of the future of my Country. He was wrong but I do not ask for impeachment”. Mr 17% Salvini is the person given credibility now.
The Post International (TPI NEWS) poll of 30 May showed M5S falling to 29.5% and Lega rising to 27.5%. Another election is likely now and it could backfire on any one of Mattarella, Di Maio or Salvini. All the options for Italy are fraught with problems.
Main Characters in the current Italian Government Crisis
Sergio Mattarella – The 12th President of Italy
Mattarella, 76, comes from a prominent Sicilian family. His father Bernardo was an anti-fascist politician who helped found the Christian Democratic Party. His brother Piersanti, also a politician, was murdered by the mafia in 1980. Although obviously affected by this and also a supporter of an anti-mafia Mayor of Palermo, there were whisperings that Sergio had been involved in a scandal. This involved the suspicion that he may have taken a large bribe from a mafia-convicted businessman. Although he was cleared of this, he did accept a very large amount of fuel vouchers from the man.
Mattarella graduated in Law from Rome’s Sapienza University and taught before going into politics in 1983. He held ministerial posts in education, defence and parliamentary affairs and is known for an election law called the Mattarellum. He also resigned his post in protest at the Mammi Act, passed by Silvio Berlusconi’s government allowing him the freedom to expand his television network nationally.
Mattarella was one of the founders of the Partito Democratico (Pd) in 2007. He became a constitutional court judge until he was nominated by the Pd‘s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, as President of Italy. Unsurprisingly the Pd have been strong supporters of Mattarella’s stance in the current political crisis.
Luigi Di Maio – Leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S)
Di Maio, 31, is the eldest of three sons of a real estate entrepreneur. His father served as a local councillor for the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano (Msi).
Di Maio was one of three senior members of M5S, before he was elected as leader. Alessandro Di Battista, has now left active politics but he also had a father who represented Msi in local politics. The third, Roberto Fico is now the President of the Chamber of Deputies. He seems to be respected by Mattarella, who has used the Presidents of the two houses to negotiate on his behalf and has spent time discussing issues with Fico.
Di Maio studied engineering at University, then Jurisprudence but didn’t graduate in either. He worked as an apprentice journalist, briefly as a webmaster and then as a steward at the Stadio San Paolo in Naples.
He had been one of the founders of students’ unions in both of his University faculties and he was one of the founders of “Friends of Beppe Grillo”, the precursor of the M5S in 2007. Di Maio was elected to a parliamentary seat in 2013 and almost immediately became the youngest Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies.
Di Maio is a suit and tie-wearing young man with the air of a gullible schoolboy. A make-over might help his credibility? One older politician nicknamed him “little Luigi”. Not without controversy, he has twice been accused of defamation. He was also involved in some foot-shuffling over the vetoed appointment of a mafia-connected cabinet member of the Mayor of Rome, the M5S‘s Virginia Raggi. She maintains that she discussed the problems with Di Maio, while he denies ever having heard about them from her.
Beppe Grillo supported him as his successor and for this reason it is likely that Di Battista and Fico didn’t stand against him but left the field to a selection of unknowns who seemed like paper candidates.
Matteo Salvini – Federal Secretary of La Lega, formerly, Lega Nord
Salvini, 45, is the son of a business executive. He studied Historical Science at Milan University but didn’t graduate and he has worked in politics since he was 19. His political activity started on the left and he was a candidate for the Lega Nord‘s Comunisti Padani. He was a member of Milan City Council and was elected to the European Parliament in 2004. In 2015 he was part of the new group, The Europe of Nations and Freedom along with Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders.
His membership of the Lega Nord has often been uneasy and he was and is openly antagonistic to those he doesn’t agree with. The disgraced ex-leader Umberto Bossi (for embezzling party funds) reminded him contemptuously of his left-leaning roots. Salvini was voted as leader after Bossi. Since then he has moved the party from being a separatist northern-only party. The region is called Padania, to one that organised nationally in the last national election. For the Euro election of 2014 he changed the party’s logo, removing the word Padania and replacing it with Basta Euro – enough of the Euro. He calls the Euro “a crime against humanity”.
Unlike Di Maio, Salvini has clear policies, which must have resonated nationally to give him his 17.4% vote share. La Lega had significant success in areas previous unknown to Lega Nord. Umbria gave him 20.2% of the vote share, there was 13.8% in Abruzzo and 10.8% in Sardinia.
Salvini is opposed to illegal immigration and has pledged to close the reception camps and repatriate all of these migrants. He supports flat tax, tax cuts, fiscal federalism and protectionism. He opposes same-sex marriage, supports family values and legalised brothels. He opposes the sanctions on Russia and is a supporter of Trump, who he met in 2016. His logo for the 2018 election resembles Trump’s logo.
It is relevant to note, with reference to his support for family values, that he has been married, had two children and was divorced. He then had a child with a live-in partner, who he left for someone else.
[This was written before the 1st June agreement, which has the same partners but a different Economy minister. One described by the BBC as not hostile to the Euro. Editor.]