By Enrico Verga, a writer, consultant, and entrepreneur based in Milan. As a consultant, he concentrates on firms interested in opportunities in international and digital markets. His articles have appeared in Il Sole 24 Ore, Capo Horn, Longitude, Il Fatto Quotidiano, and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter @enricoverga.
A month after the election, how are things developing in Italy?
Let’s take a look at the blocs angling for power.
The Parties and Coalitions on the F ield
Partito Democratico (PD): Comparable to the US Democratic Party. Before this last election, it was in power; in its governments, the prime minister was first the party secretary Matteo Renzi and later Paolo Gentiloni.
The PD lost the March 2018 elections. It didn’t just lose them, it really lost them, as can be seen from the electoral map, where it is actually difficult to spot the red dots (red being the color representing the PD, perhaps given that many of its voters historically supported the Italian Communist Party).
Center right: Made up of three parties, and therefore sometimes referred to as a “three-legged alliance.” There was also a fourth leg (Noi con l’Italia), but its performance in the elections was so weak that we can forget about it.
The three legs are:
Forza Italia: Obtained about 13% of the vote. Its leader is Silvio Berlusconi, who is famous for many reasons: he is the founder of the Mediaset media empire and the former owner of Milan, the soccer club, as well as a great fan of women – as it happens, he is a big supporter of quotas for women (quote rosa) in politics in general and in his own party in particular.
In previous elections, his party, created with his money, was always the leader of the center-right coalition. This time, though, it came in second. Notwithstanding this disappointment, Berlusconi, who is technically unable to hold public office due to certain legal issues on which he has appealed to the court in Strasbourg, is demanding for himself the post of prime minister.
Lega Nord: Obtained about 17% of the vote. Originally it was called the “Lombard League” and it promoted the idea of secession: splitting off the rich North from the poorer Center and South of Italy. It is now led by a new leader, Matteo Salvini, who focused his campaign, following an approach not entirely dissimilar to Trump’s, around a concept of “Italy first.”
Fratelli d’Italia: The remains of the MSI, itself the not particularly impressive continuation of the fascist party of Mussolini. It is led by the blonde Giorgia Meloni, who, while making no secret of her boyfriend and their out-of-wedlock child, stresses her belief in the traditional family and the values it represents.
Cinque Stelle (Five Stars): The party of the moment, as it were, winning more votes (about 32%) than any other.
The party sprang from an initiative of Beppe Grillo, a famous comedian, and Gian Roberto Casaleggio, the head of a PR agency with ideas about the future that are rather eccentric, even apocalyptic. The party criticizes the powers that be of global finance, and its delegates have also warned the world about the Bilderbergs, chemtrails, implanted chips, Masonic plots, aliens, and assorted other threats. Curiously, it has picked as its potential Minister for Economic Affairs an individual with close links to the aforementioned powers that be, Lorenzo Fioramonti. According to a recently published article, Casaleggio e Associati even managed to get a substantial amount of money from another group linked to the “powers that be,” the Soros Open Society Foundation.
When Gian Roberto Casaleggio passed away, in proper dynastic style he left his PR agency to his son Davide. The latter has often been criticized in the Italian press for his murky links to the party founded by his father, and in fact has been accused of actually owning the party through a sort of shell company: a foundation of which he is the sole guarantor.
Another noteworthy feature of the Five Stars movement is that it requires its politicians to sign a legal contract that requires them to pay monetary fines if, once elected, they leave the party. This and other rules have been often challenged in the Italian press as abusive or possibly even illegal.
However, as will be explained further below, the most serious criticism directed at the Five Stars party is that it is in the process of reneging on all of its commitments.
The way the Italian system works is that after an election, the parties negotiate with each other and try to set up a coalition that will include a majority of the delegates. During this process, the Italian president (currently Sergio Mattarella) plays an important role. The (Italian-style) presidency is a rather unfamiliar office from an American point of view – the idea is that the president (a bit like the Fed chair) is supposed to be supra partes, outside of all political factions, and to act motivated exclusively by the objective of finding a stable, enduring government.
Given that none of the coalitions won an absolute majority in the election, we find ourselves in a scenario where two of them (or possibly parts of them, see below) will have to come to an agreement.
By “coming to an agreement,” I mean of course finding common ground on their plans for Italy, but given that the flesh is weak and that in Italy the salaries and other perks of government officials are rather juicy, the parties will also need to come to an agreement on who gets to be ministers, vice-ministers, on who gets to be in charge of public companies, and so on. Summing up, there will indeed be compromises on programs, but those in the coalition also need to get hooked up.
The Outlook for the Major Blocs
The PD lost. With uncharacteristic finesse, they have declared that they know they lost, they are ready to play the part of the opposition, and nonetheless, should Mattarella call upon them, they will be ready to do whatever is necessary for the good of the nation.
The center right is feeling a bit sick to its stomach. Berlusconi is not thrilled that what has always been the second strongest party (Lega) is now the leader of the coalition, but he is trying to grin and bear it. Lega has fairly modest economic resources, while Forza Italia can, at least in theory, count on Berlusconi’s personal fortune (even though the latter has said repeatedly that he won’t throw any more money into the party).
In any case, given that the center-right has a plurality of the votes, it considers itself to have a sort of first claim on forming a government. Of course, to do that, it does need to fish in troubled waters and come up with the necessary additional votes.
The Five Stars are having trouble being more than comic relief. They were counting on winning the election outright, and during the campaign, they promised that: they wouldn’t form coalitions with other parties, they would leave the Euro, they would leave the European Union, they were against the PD which was corrupt, they were against the PD’s secretary Renzi who had used his power to reward his friends, they were against Lega which had no solutions to offer, only hatred, they were sympathetic to Putin, they were critical of knee-jerk alliance with America. And so on.
Now that they have won the election but are on the verge of losing their chance of taking power, their leader Luigi Di Maio is yielding to the advances of everyone with the air of an old pro.
First he declared that the Five Stars would stick with the EU, with the Euro, and with the Atlantic alliance.
Next he declared that he was willing to form a coalition government with any political party as long as it would respect the Five Stars’ rules.
After that, he declared that he would be happy to form a government with the PD provided they would save face for him by leaving Renzi out of it. Or he could form a government with Lega provided that they would save face for him by leaving Berlusconi out of it.
For the time being, the center-right parties have been fairly decent about maintaining their pacts, and it soon became clear that Salvini/Lega would stick to the coalition they had committed to. Di Maio then returned to the idea of forming a government with the PD. When the PD said it wasn’t interested, the Five Stars responded that for the good of the country it ought to be, considering that it could thereby atone for its mistakes.
The current state of play is that Di Maio is continuing on his desperate quest to find a person, party, angel, demon, or extraterrestrial life form that might be capable of giving him enough support to allow him to form a government. In this he draws strength from the 11 million Italians who believed in him and his promise to provide a sort of universal basic income at least to the unemployed – an attractive vision especially in the South given the high unemployment rate there. On the other hand, if it starts to look like the promises of the Five Stars are empty, then there is a significant risk that many of its voters will lose faith and bolt in the next election.
Di Maio doesn’t merely have to worry about the voters deserting – there are also real reasons to doubt the loyalty of some of the newly-elected Five Stars senators and deputies. After the previous election, there were about 40 defectors (deputies and senators) from the Five Stars: the so-called “mixed group,” which subsequently became a prize that other parties worked to attract into their own orbits in order to bulk up their coalitions.
Di Maio’s worry is that as he continues to fail to form a government, there will be fresh defections – there have already been eight. Many of the Five Stars’ representatives come from modest backgrounds. Although defecting would mean having to pay the fines mentioned above, that might seem like a small price to pay compared to having the opportunity to safeguard their (potentially lucrative) seats at the table.
All of this raises the stakes for Di Maio in his frantic efforts to try to accomplish something, somehow.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a degree in futurology from doctor Nostradamus. Nevertheless, here are my projections based on the current situation.
The government will be center-right.
There are rumors (none with good sourcing) to the effect that the center-right government that forms would operate as a placeholder: it would pass a new electoral law and then call for new elections. Frankly, I don’t find this credible. Keeping in mind that 60% of the newly elected senators and deputies are first-timers, it becomes hard to imagine (thinking uncharitably) that after a mere two years, they would knowingly vote to dissolve the government and thereby give up their salaries. Perhaps if they felt like they were absolutely sure of being reelected, but that’s unlikely if they don’t fulfill at least some of the promises that got them votes in the first place.
Lega will dominate the key ministerial seats (Foreign Affairs, Finance, Interior), while the less critical ones will go to Forza Italia. Vice-minister positions will go to Fratelli d’Italia and other minor parties (perhaps even the fourth leg), or to fugitives from the Five Stars.
Relative to previous governments, the new center-right government will be pro-Putin and anti-globalization (at least officially); also more or less pro-Trump, considering the nationalist orientation of the current US government.
On the economic front, both Lega and Forza Italia clamor for a 15% flat tax, but the idea of them actually passing it sounds like science fiction.
How might the prospective government compare to previous Berlusconi governments? The balance of power among the parties of the center right is still being worked out. However, given Salvini’s campaign, we can expect more opposition to migrants and a more critical approach to the European Union – by contrast, Berlusconi’s attitude toward the EU is less hostile.
Will it be a good government? I have no idea. Compared to the available alternative, though, it’s possible that a right government will be the lesser wrong.