Italy’s Populist Victory Is Both Tragedy and Farce

The advent of a Euroskeptic government in a founding member state of the European Union may be a point of no return.

Luigi Di Maio, of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, smiles during a news conference in Rome.
Luigi Di Maio, of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement, smiles during a news conference in Rome.  (Tony Gentile / Reuters)

PARIS—Will a certain dream of Europe end with a bang or a whimper, with a calamity or a thousand paper cuts, with a grand dramatic moment or a tawdry local melodrama? That’s the question that has been swirling around in Europe ever since two populist, Euroskeptic parties triumphed in Italy’s national elections in March. The vote failed to produce a solid majority, plunging the country into weeks of confusing backroom negotiations that have made serious people despair and markets tremble. But this week, the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and anti-immigrant League party, which joined together in an unsettling marriage of convenience last week, announced they’d picked Giuseppe Conte, an unknown lawyer, law professor and expert in “de-bureaucratization,” to be prime minister. On Wednesday, after weeks of twists and turns, Italian president Sergio Mattarella gave Conte a mandate to form a government. The deal isn’t entirely sealed and the government must pass a confidence vote in Parliament, but that’s likely to happen since the two parties have a majority, however slim.

It wasn’t always clear Conte would make it. No sooner was he named than a scandal broke over whether he had inflated his CV, claiming to have studied at New York University, the Sorbonne, and Cambridge University, but lacked  formal affiliations. After The New York Times spotted the NYU inconsistency, the Five-Star Movement later clarified that he’d gone to New York “to perfect his English language legal skills.” The leader of the Five-Star Movement, Luigi di Maio, decried the “unprecedented attacks” on Conte from the foreign and Italian mainstream media, and the attacks played to his anti-establishment base. It was yet another turn in an unfolding drama that’s at once tragedy and farce.

The writer Ennio Flaiano once remarked that, “In Italy, the political situation is grave but never serious.” That line, however clever and true it may have been, may no longer apply. Something genuinely distressing is happening here. For all Conte’s talk of solidifying Italy’s place in Europe, as he said in his first public remarks on Wednesday evening, the fact is Italian voters issued the most resounding rebuke of the establishment in the country’s postwar history. Most opted for one of two parties: The Five-Star Movement, a protest movement that entered Parliament for the first time in 2013 and this time around carried the entire Italian south, and a far-right anti-immigrant party, the League, which carried its traditional base in northern Italy. The League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, is likely to be the next interior minister.

This radical political situation—Conte on Wednesday said he’d be leading “a government of change”—comes with the policies to match. The government platform calls for the expulsion of 500,000 migrants who’ve entered Italy illegally in recent years—as well as a flat tax, a basic income for Italians below a certain financial threshold, lowering the retirement age, and lifting European sanctions on Russia. It also calls for subsidies for “Italian families” to send their children to kindergarten, though it’s unclear whether that includes or excludes legal residents who don’t have Italian citizenship.

The dam has broken. It may not be the end of the European Union as we know it, but the advent of a populist, Euroskeptic government in a founding member state of the European Union and the euro may be a point of no return. The platform doesn’t call for pulling out of either the European Union or the euro, but it does call for renegotiating Italy’s relationship within the European Union, insofar as that’s possible under European treaties. And so the Eurocrats—and the editorial writers of every leading mainstream European publication—are right to be worried. The populists won this election telling Italians to stop being pushed around by undemocratic unelected officials in Brussels. They decry Brussels as the great finger-wagger, the remover of national sovereignty that they’re so eager to restore.

This government, if it’s installed, was democratically elected, the fruit of genuine anger and resentment in a country that has seen years of economic stagnation. Some Italians also feel abandoned by a European Union that left their country to contend on its own with hundreds of thousands of migrants. And they have allies across Europe. It’s not surprising that in a recent interview with the Turin daily La Stampa, Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit campaigner, expressed his glee at Italy’s likely governing coalition. Marine Le Pen has tweeted her support, saying that after the rise to power of the right-wing Freedom Party in Austria, she was heartened by the League’s likely ascent.

The League’s Salvini, for one, returns the affection—he expresses his admiration for Le Pen and for Victor Orbán, the soft autocrat governing Hungary. Salvini also speaks of Italy as a hellish country in terms that echo Trump’s inaugural address. In a Facebook Live video this week, Salvini called Italy a country of “instability, fear, and anti-depressants.” He has also said that he’s not Superman, Batman, or Robin.

Ironically, both the Five Star Movement and the League have railed for years against “technocrats” who foisted economic reforms on Italy, only to choose a previously unelected law professor to lead the government. Also, half of this anti-establishment government is, in fact, the establishment. The League is actually the longest-existing party on the Italian political scene, having been founded in 1987. It called for years for the secession of swaths of northern Italy around the Po River. Its scope “now reaches far beyond the Po and replaces Odin with Orbán in its pantheon and Rome with Brussels as the enemy,” as the commentator Ezio Mauro wrote recently in La Repubblica. The League served in multiple governments led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who spent the campaign railing against the Five-Star Movement but ultimately gave his default blessing to the coalition.

Italy is a highly complex country in which deeply embedded, neo-feudal power networks intersect with political currents in ways that have long defied the right-versus-left divide that makes other European countries far more straightforward. But what’s unique about this new Italian coalition and makes it unprecedented in Italian political history is that it scrambles the traditional divide between opposition and majority. Instead of an opposition party using anti-establishment rhetoric to win a majority, today’s Italian populists believe the establishment per se is “an intractable ‘caste’” whose power should be reined in, as Nadia Urbinati, a political science professor at Columbia University, wrote recently in La Repubblica.

Italy’s election results and this populist coalition have sprung from a crisis of both Italy’s and Europe’s making, one that combines homegrown political disarray, corruption, and miscalculations along with the complexities of eurozone economics. What we’re seeing in Italy today is the end of a chapter that began in 1992 with the collapse of Italy’s post-war political order and eventually gave rise to Berlusconi, who alone dominated the center-right for decades, even after he was forced to resign as prime minister in 2011 at the height of the euro crisis, making it impossible for Italy to have a “normal” center-right akin to those in France and Germany. It also owes something to the center-left Democratic Party leader Matteo Renzi, whose efforts to make fundamental changes to Italy as prime minister from 2014 until 2016 made him unpopular with voters. (Another irony: the same voters who now want change apparently didn’t want the changes Renzi was pushing while in power.) Renzi’s imperious style has made him unpopular inside the Democratic Party, weakening it ahead of elections.

But no matter how poorly the mainstream parties played their own political hands, there’s a bigger shift here, and it’s maybe about revenge. A decade since the start of the euro crisis, many citizens in Italy find the economic situation too complex to understand, but they do understand that their salaries have barely risen in two decades, that they have to move abroad to find work if they’re ambitious, or, if they live in the South, resign themselves to the fact that there may actually never be jobs, hence the desire for a basic income. They wanted something different. They wanted to vote out their leaders. No matter that the new leaders may be even worse than the old ones.