Europe’s populists face their first major test in Italy

Five Star Movement is about to assume responsibility for a stagnant yet chaotic nation

Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement: can  he navigate a path from chaos? Photograph: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Luigi Di Maio, leader of Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement: can he navigate a path from chaos? Photograph: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

 

Before Italy’s general election earlier in March, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement asked voters which laws they would like to see abolished. According to the dedicated website the party created for the survey, just 131 laws were selected by those who took part, out of the 187,000 it calculates have been passed since Italy became a unified state.

It was a trivial little survey, typical of a political faction that up to now has been hard to take seriously. Five Star was set up less than a decade ago with a mission to overthrow il sistema, as Italians call their entrenched power structures. It became the largest party in the Italian parliament after the March 4th election. Now it is likely to be asked, for the first time, to try to form a government. As the website survey suggests, it may be out of ideas already.

Yet the response to the question was also revealing. If Italy’s voters want rid of just a handful of “laws that complicate our lives”, as the website put it, out of the vast corpus enacted over the past 150 years, perhaps they do not really want to see the system overthrown. Beneath the beguiling surface of Italian society, voters know the country is a mess. The election result is a scream of frustration at an ossified status quo. But it is hardly a mandate for a revolution.

The only thing we can say for certain after the election is that it has tilted Italian politics towards the chaotic. The outcome saw big gains not just for the quasi-anarchists of Five Star but for the right-wing nationalists of the League. This Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant party is based almost exclusively in the rich north of Italy. The losers were the centrists of the Democratic Party, and the Forza Italia movement led by billionaire tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.

State failure

This is new territory for Italy. It is the result of 2½ decades of transition from a system of government, dominated by the Christian Democrats and the communists since 1945, that was destroyed in the early 1990s by corruption and abject state failure. Since then, Italians have had a choice of Berlusconi, whose political style is government-as-cabaret-act; technocrats such as Mario Monti; and more recently the Democrats of Matteo Renzi, a young man in a hurry felled by hubris.

Hauling Italy back from its long stagnation requires seriousness of purpose

Those years were marked by weak leadership and political opportunism, and they have left a destabilising legacy. One of the most striking things about Italy, as anybody who lived there for a while can testify, is the alienation of its young people. Like a generation of young Irish people in the 1970s and 1980s, this generation of young Italians has known only economic stagnation and narrowing prospects, and many have emigrated. Those who remain appear to have voted in large numbers for the untried and the untested – and who can blame them?

The source of this generation’s alienation is the stagnation of the economy, which has barely grown since Italy joined the euro. Despite its vibrant fashion, design and manufacturing sectors, there is something rigid and old-fashioned about Italian institutions and industries – and, one might add, about Italian society.

It is the only euro zone country besides Greece whose economy is smaller in 2018 than it was in 2008, before the global and euro crises erupted. Reform attempts by a couple of recent governments have only scratched the surface of what needs to be done.

Now the country faces months in limbo as president Sergio Mattarella, a quiet and dignified Sicilian, tries to coax the political factions into some form of stable government. It is not, of course, ungovernable in the meantime – Italy has a cadre of outstanding technocrats and civil servants who keep the show on the road, including managing its sovereign debt, which stands at 130 per cent of its economic output. (Ireland’s is about 70 per cent.)

Opposition vs power

Up to now, Five Star has been content to be a sort of permanent opposition. But that was under its founder, Beppe Grillo. He has retreated behind the scene, and the movement is led now by the 31-year-old Luigi di Maio. The question is whether di Maio has enough of a sense of responsibility, and the party has enough internal coherence, both to want to form a government, and then to govern rationally if it actually takes office in a coalition arrangement.

If it does, Italy will be unique among the big western European democracies in having populists not just in parliament but in government. The National Front in France is nowhere near being able to win the presidency. The far-right Alternative for Germany party has a sizeable representation in the Bundestag, but it is in opposition. The nativists of the UK Independence Party and their fellow-travellers on the hard right of the Conservative Party have given their country the shambles of Brexit, but they have abdicated responsibility for implementing it.

So it is in Italy that the noisy ambitions of the current wave of populist politicians in western Europe look set to be exposed for the first time to the jagged edges of power. Hauling Italy back from its long stagnation requires not just a serious programme of structural and social reform, but seriousness of purpose. This is the quality that is lacking among Europe’s populists – they are just not serious people. We must hope, for its own sake and for Europe’s, that the Italian variety is different.

Vincent Boland is a writer and commentator

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