How the Italian Establishment Helped the Populists Win

“The best allies of the so called populists are those who think of themselves as their enemies. “ ~ Marco Travaglio, Editor of Il Fatto Quotidiano

It has been a tumultuous three months in Italian politics, complete with high drama, plot twists, and the breaking of well-established norms. Just as events seemed to be spinning out of control, all the key players were able to step back from the brink and engineer a happy ending – especially for the populists. It was never supposed have turned out this way. The Italian establishment took every precaution to make sure that the populists would never be able to enter the halls of power – or that if they did, they would be kept on a tight leash. In the end, the unthinkable happened. The two populist parties – Five Star Movement on the Left and La Lega (The League) on the Right – came together, agreed on a legislative agenda for the next five years, and formed the first populist government in Western Europe. It is the old establishment that finds itself on the outside looking in.

According to the Italian Constitution, Parliament is elected every five years, unless the president dissolves it and snap elections are held. Since the last election in 2013, the establishment managed to avoid the voting booth even though the electoral law that gave the Democrat Party a majority was declared unconstitutional by the courts. As the five year mark approached, a new electoral law was required, and mainstream parties saw this as a golden opportunity to design a system that would preserve the status quo.

The law, nicknamed Rosatellum, encouraged political parties to form coalitions – this provision was specifically designed to put the Five Star Movement at a disadvantage, since it has a policy of not entering into coalitions for electoral purposes - and force The League to enter into a coalition with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party. In the event the Center Right coalition won a majority, Berlusconi would be responsible for keeping The League in check. On March 4, 2018, the elections were held, and it produced both expected and unexpected results. On the expected front, no party or coalition was able to obtain a majority in Parliament. On the the unexpected front, both the Five Star Movement and The League outperformed public polls and won enough seats to prevent establishment parties from forming a majority in Parliament. In the case of the The League, it received more votes than Forza Italia, resulting in its leader, Matteo Salvini, being crowned as the new head of the Center Right coalition and sidelining Berlusconi.

Immediately following the election, I predicted that the an alliance between the Five Star Movement and the Democrat Party would form in an effort to keep The League - seen by the smart set as the more distasteful populist party due to its views on immigration, Europe and social issues - out of government. The President of Italy, Sergio Mattarella, tried to do exactly what I predicted, but the Democrat Party turned out to be much more dysfunctional than anyone imagined. After one month of attempts, Mattarella gave up the effort and announced his intention to form a “neutral government” made up of unelected officials that would guide Italy until new elections were held sometime in December.  The objective was to buy six months for the establishment parties to recover from the beating they just received from the voters and form a new front against the populists.

Both populist leaders vociferously rejected the president's proposal and demanded new elections as soon as possible. The prospect of heading back to the polls in June frightened the establishment parties still struggling to recover from their recent loss. In the case of Berlusconi’s party, it continued to lose ground to The League after the March elections, and an immediate return to the polls would surely translate in many newly elected members to Parliament losing their seats. In response to his party’s demands, Berlusconi decided to give his ally Salvini the green light to negotiate with Luigi Di Maio – leader of the Five Star Movement – and see whether some sort of agreement could be reached to avoid new elections - all the while hoping that Salvini would hit a wall and return to the Center Right fold wounded. 

Unfortunately for the establishment, The League and the Five Star were able to find common ground on key issues, synergy and produced a “contratto di governo” (a contract to govern) that included the signature issues of both parties, along with several measures that were sure to please their respective constituencies. The old tactic of divide and conquer - also used in the United States - to keep populist parties on the Left and Right apart and, thus, marginalized, was no longer an option - all that was left was to mercilessly attack and sow discord between Di Maio and Salvini.  

Berlusconi’s colonels and media outlets began attacking Salvini as a traitor.  The left learning media attacked Di Maio for ceding too much ground to The League. Financial markets began to turn negatively towards Italy and several European Union officials let their unhappiness with the populists be known. The across the board attacks from home and abroad had the opposite effect as intended: the alliance between Di Maio and Salvini grew stronger. Both leaders took the view that that the attacks and criticism were a sign they were on the right course. They selected Giuseppe Conte, an unknown jurist and professor and part of the Five Star Movement, to serve as Prime Minister (the actual title is President of the Council of Ministers) of the new government, and presented his name to the Italian president.

Mattarella waited a couple of days before giving Conte the mandate to form a government, giving time for the media to find some dirt or somehow disqualify him for the premiership. The press took to the task with gusto - even the New York Times joined in - but all they could muster were allegations that Conte may have slightly padded his resume. The president – pursuant to the Italian constitution – has sole discretion and power when it comes to nominating the Prime Minister - he can choose anyone he pleases. However, the political reality is that, once an individual has a parliamentary majority backing him or her, the president has no choice but to back the mandate unless there is some sort of scandal or disqualifying trait. When the attacks against Conte failed to gain traction, Mattarella was forced to give him the mandate to form a government.

Within a couple of days, Conte returned to the Quirinale Palace (one of the three official residences of the Italian president) with the list of ministers for the president to nominate. With his back against the wall, Mattarella made one last ditch effort to stop the populist takeover. He approved of all the ministers except for Paolo Savona – selected to be Minister of the Economy - due to his euroskeptic stance and proposal to have a Plan B ready should Italy be forced to leave the Euro. Italian presidents have refused to nominate ministers in the past due to conflicts of interest or legal or ethical problems, but never has an Italian president rejected a minister based on his political views (several legal experts argue that the president does not have the constitutional power to do so). Nevertheless, Mattarella took this unprecedented step  and revived his proposal for a “neutral government”.

The establishment parties were quick to praise Mattarella for having saved Italy from a disastrous – in their view – populist government. The Democrat Party immediately announced their intention to support the president’s move in Parliament. Berlusconi also praised the president but - after seeing the negative reaction of Italian voters - he announced his party would not support the "neutral government". The populists, again, called for immediate elections and, after a couple of days, as the public anger grew, the Democrat Party withdrew its support. The president found himself alone and under threat of impeachment, with financial markets bearing down on Italian finances.  For the first time in the history of the Italian Republic, a government would be installed without receiving any votes in Parliament. Eventually, the populists and Mattarella were able to forge a compromise. Savona – whom the various European chancelleries feared – is now in charge of managing Italy’s relationship with the European Union, and another euroskeptic economist was found to fill the role of Minister of the Economy - further proof that the objection against Savona were just an excuse to veto the populist government.

From the electoral law through all the machinations used to preserve power, the establishment only antagonized voters and increased the support for the populist parties - especially The League. which has reached poll numbers no one ever thought it would five years ago when it was fading from the Italian political scene with only 3% in the polls. The establishment claims they acted in the interests of Italians and protecting democracy - much the same way the establishment in the United States justifies its effort to effectively overturn the election of Donald Trump. It is impossible to know whether their motivations are pure, but I would be willing to bet that the real fear that motivates the establishment is that the populists will succeed in restoring hope, dignity and sovereignty for the Italian people.