2018 07 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


The UK press has suddenly become interested in Italian politics because of its move to the right since the March elections. President Mattarella took more than two months to negotiate around a political stalemate and the result was an odd and unexpected coalition. The leader of the largest party, Movimento 5 Stelle’s (M5S), Luigi Di Maio was joined in government by the leader of the centre right coalition’s largest party, Matteo Salvini of La Lega. This is the first time that either party has held power nationally.

M5S are anti the political class, “the casta”, anti-corruption and voter-centred. Many of the group’s decisions are made by an on-line poll of voters. Many M5S members were opposed to Salvini’s policies and therefore were against sharing government with him. An Il Fatto Quotidiano article of 4 July summed up the continuing alienation of many to their party in government: “Now I do not recognise you any more: where are you going? What are you becoming?”. Although it must be said that M5S has actually gained a fraction of support in the polls at the start of July.

Matteo Salvini was once a communist but he ran on a right-wing manifesto in the election. He admires Donald Trump and also Tweets. Umberto Bossi and Roberto Maroni, the two founder members of Lega Nord, think him an opportunist, do not support him and avoided appearing at a recent rally. La Repubblica reported them saying: “Just because you have taken votes doesn’t mean you are right.” But Salvini has taken Lega Nord, which worked for the separation and independence of the north of Italy, and changed it. He organised and won seats nationally. He changed the name to La Lega and rebranded its symbol to be blue rather than the previous green.

On 3 July Andrea Monaci wrote in Urbanpost that the “authoritative paper The Guardian” had reported that the former mayor of Reggio Calabria had helped Salvini win votes with ‘Ndrangheta mafia help. The mayor’s mafia link has never been proven, although he has been jailed for fraud. The article says, “The English newspaper tells us something well known, although not very highlighted by the Italian media”.

Before the election Di Maio drew up a list of public figures who he said he would appoint to his government should he win. There was a famous football coach, who actually refused the future nomination. The new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s selection was proposed at this time. Unlike the UK, the Italian Prime Minister does not have to be a member of parliament and previous premiers Matteo Renzi and Mario Monte were not. The very important distinction here is that both men were political figures with a manifesto and strong mission, while Conte is a civil and commercial lawyer with no political experience. His role is to work with the two Deputy Prime Ministers, Di Maio and Salvini, to lead the government, with no manifesto of his own. A powerful position with no actual power.

Renato Mannheimer a senior pollster and professor wrote in Libero saying that it was a disaster to have a Prime Minister who isn’t one. And, predictably, in the short time since the election, Matteo Salvini has moved to occupy the political vacuum that is Prime Minister Conte. He has disregarded, indeed sidelined, Di Maio who lacks the presence, force and guile to counter him. He has now lost the rather innocent jubilant glow of the immediate post-election period.

In government Salvini immediately put his anti-migrant manifesto into effect. He was helped by a timely crisis in the Mediterranean but he grabbed the opportunity and used it to maximum effect, propelling himself into the role of apparent Prime Minister. Di Maio’s role of Minister of Economic Development, Labour and Social Policies lacks the same controversial punch offered to Salvini, who is Minister of the Interior. There are several laws initiated by Matteo Renzo that he has pledged to repeal, but this is being effected more quietly.

Salvini has been devastatingly effective in a few weeks. The Dublin Agreement whereby migrants are registered and held in the country of arrival has impacted on Italy. Migrants have been humanely treated and generally have been generously assimilated. But other EU countries, apart from Merkel’s Germany, have refused to take migrants and borders have been sealed, despite the Schengen free movement of people. Italians are unhappy about this. Another contentious issue has been the fact that Turkey, a non-EU member, has been paid to receive and hold migrants. Salvini has capitalised on the unfairness of Italy’s position and has orchestrated anti-migrant sentiments in Italy and Europe. But he has made the EU jump and listen to Italy. He has achieved the political celebrity status that he obviously needs. He is reported as saying that he would like to lead the far right in Europe who, he says, are the only ones willing to listen to those disenfranchised and disregarded by the current political class. Within or without the EU?

Current polls show Salvini personally running more or less level with Di Maio. At the election they were 18% and 32% respectively. Both parties scored well in the recent local elections. The left had a disastrous showing losing several red strongholds, while Silvio Berlusconi’s popularity shrunk significantly. But polls show that between 60% and 70% of voters approve of Salvini’s stance on migrants, while around 30% call him a racist.

Journalist Sciltian Gastaldi wrote an article in Il Fatto Quotidiano that had a sinister ring. The headline echoed Carlo Levi’s book (Christ stopped at Eboli) and was: “Christ stopped at Pontida”. He referred to the recent Lega rally in the northern town of Pontida (also used by Bossi and Maroni for Lega Nord rallies in the past). The sinister reference was to Benito Mussolini. Levi was exiled to the south by Mussolini’s government because of his anti-fascist beliefs. In the book the locals say that Christ stopped short of here, in Eboli, meaning that they have been bypassed by Christianity and morality.

Gastaldi goes on to discuss his analysis of the position of migrants in Europe. There are several other articles in the press that make similar points. But the writers are part of the educated 30%, those “that read books” while he says that the majority gullibly follow someone like Salvini. “They are pleased with the “hard fist” of leaders”, without questioning their ethics.

Paolo Farinella, a priest, makes some interesting points in Il Fatto Quotidiano. Europe has always exploited Africa for valuable commodities and sold their people as slaves. Precious metals are still exploited to sustain the world’s modern technology without ethical regard to the workers, their conditions and the local social unrest that is triggered (The Congo is mentioned). And now, he says, we close Europe to them and leave them to die in the Mediterranean. The title of the article makes a riveting point: What happens when Africa closes their doors to us?

Now Salvini is talking about arming Italian police with tasers. Does he foresee discontent?