2019 09 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette

Who dares sometimes wins?

La Repubblica recently showed Matteo Renzi (previous centre-left leader) and Beppe Grillo (comedian and co-founder of M5S, Five Star Movement) having a discussion. They sat opposite each other and talked, shouted, waved their arms and occasionally stretched over the table jabbing their fingers to make a point. Both were obviously enjoying the exchange and the level of passion and involvement were palpable. Finally both men stood up shook hands and left. 

Contemporary voters are lapping up this level of animation, showmanship and political charisma; and it is a very male trait. On the world’s political scene we have examples of bombastic leaders, alpha males with a sense of personal entitlement and their own sense of reality. Trump, Bolsonaro, Putin and the UK’s own Johnson immediately come to mind. Italy had Silvio Berlusconi and now has Matteo Salvini.

Except Italy did have Matteo Salvini until recently. His style developed into one of parading his ego as if he were the Prime Minister, when he was only one of two Deputy PMs. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte became increasingly openly angry with what amounted to a power-grab by Salvini and resigned. Salvini rationalised his stance in this way. He had agreed to share power with M5S and Luigi Di Maio after the March 2018 election. At that point his La Lega  had roughly half the number of votes as M5S. His constant energetic self-promotion worked to overthrow the percentage points in the polls, and Lega currently have around 35% to M5S‘s 18%. Salvini had spent the summer promoting himself, appearing on beaches to play games, actively kissing a crucifix and invoking The Madonna. The Pope complained about the political use of the church’s symbols. Salvini is also a twice divorced man with children by two different women.

Salvini’s poll ratings were so good that he wanted to cease working with M5S and pushed for a no confidence vote in PM Conte. Salvini calculated that the inevitable election would result in a clear win for himself. But Conte resigned just before the confidence vote and President Mattarella (with more active powers than the UK’s Head of State) investigated whether other parties could form a new government. They could and at the time of writing, the end of August, a new coalition is being formed between M5S and the centre-left Partito Democratico, Pd.

The agreements have neither been finalised nor are they without complexities. At one point during the period of Mattarella’s lengthy and carefully organised discussions Salvini even tried to tempt Di Maio back into coalition with the lure of the post of Prime Minister. M5S have always been very critical of the Pd and Salvini had not anticipated any change. Salvini’s power-grabbing strategy was obviously miscalculated. But the losing or gaining of power are very powerful personal motivators. As an example, there were a significant number of UK Tories who threatened to resign if Johnson was confirmed as leader and it then went quiet.

So Matteo Renzi previous Pd leader and Prime Minister, initially and unreservedly welcomed discussions with M5S. But this upstaged the current leader Nicola Zingaretti who set conditions, one of which was not to accept Conte back as PM. This marked a further development of actual or internal splits within the Pd. A delicious La Repubblica article described some of the characters in the current political drama. In contrast to the customary bombasts: “Berlusconi and Renzi, Grillo and Salvini.” Zingaretti offers the novelty of an impassiveness that would be the envy of Clint Eastwood. He and his team offer a “tortoise lineup” for Mattarella’s deliberations. No charisma there.

Then of Di Maio, who was totally immobile next to the expressive Beppe Grillo during his discussion with Renzi. Writer Gabriele Romagnoli hits the mark with his description. Romagnoli says Di Maio has “the terse air that would appeal to grandmothers and fingers that are trying to button up a jacket that is too narrow, particularly as it has an overambitious destiny”. Di Maio just doesn’t excite and is one of the reasons for M5S‘s loss of support. Internally M5S is now somewhat restless and critical of him. A final, in fact the final telling comment on Di Maio comes from the Biarritz G7. Trump had called Conte a “good guy”. Well, said Di Maio: “Recognition by Trump is a sign we are on the right path”.

Until there is an election in Italy the opinion polls have to be calculated to identify alternatives. Interestingly the combined percentage support of M5S and Pd is roughly similar to Salvini’s Lega plus the support of two other centre or right-wing groups. So although Salvini has refused to share anything with the dominant and domineering Berlusconi, Silvio’s grasp is fading, and so finally that option could arise. For the moment the buccaneers have been replaced by the serious guys.

The Italian press has obviously been gripped by its own political developments. But Boris is flashy and makes news. And importantly, the implications of his strategy for the stability of the EU are evident and being considered. He has provided an example of what appears on the surface to be a route for any other country to exit the EU. La Stampa sees it as a strategy to frighten Brussels to give him a new agreement.

La Repubblica‘s front page immediately carried what their London reporter Enrico Franceschini called “The Incredible English Coup”, which “hadn’t happened in Hong Kong, in Moscow or in a banana republic”. He explained the context thus: the English had developed the Athenian idea of democracy and in 1215 had laid the grounding for the modern democratic state with The Magna Carta. The UK is respected for “The mother of all the parliaments”.

Unlike the active role of Italian Head of State, the Queen has been involved “in an encounter where she is frightened to lose her neutral and apolitical role.”  La Repubblica and La Stampa both explained that Carlo I – King Charles I – had his head cut off for interfering in politics and suspending parliament. But says Franceschini “for Boris it could be less bad; instead of his head, the maximum risk is the loss of his post.”