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Italy’s Terrible Alternatives

Northern League, Five Star Movement... Berlusconi? Why the Right is set to dominate the Italian election.

Silvio Berlusconi at the European People's Party congress on March 29, 2017. European People's Party / Flickr

The Italian parliament was dissolved on December 28, in preparation for the March 4, 2018 general election. If indications from recent regional contests and the polls are to be believed, the Democrats, today in government together with small centrist parties, are set for a historic defeat.

But what will follow them? International coverage has focused on the Five Star Movement (M5S), a populist post-crash formation which leads in the polls but seems unlikely to be able to form a coalition. A more plausible scenario is the return to prominence of Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party is at the head of a right-wing recovery. Then there is the potential drama of another hung parliament.

Is Italy about to plunge the eurozone into fresh crisis? And after years of economic stagnation and massive youth unemployment, what are the signs of hope? Jacobin‘s David Broder reports from Rome.

Resurgent Right

The last time an Italian politician led his party into the election and then became prime minister was in 2008. That leader was Silvio Berlusconi, and every Italian government since his downfall in 2011 has been either made up of unelected technocrats or hybrid coalitions uniting forces of both center-left and center-right. The economic crisis has intensified a long-term fragmentation of the Italian party system, which has persisted unabated ever since the end of the Cold War. Continuing this trend, in the run-up to the election called for March 4th we again see a bric-a-brac of new party names and alliances.

Even the oldest force in the Italian parliament — the Northern League, founded only in 1991—provides a fine example of this, this month changing its logo so its name appears as just “League.” Once a separatist force that campaigned to split the wealthier north away from the rump of central-southern Italy, Matteo Salvini’s Lega is now an all-Italian hard-right movement, attempting to expand into the south and create a party like France’s Front National, rivaling the center-right. At close to 15 percent in national polling, the Lega is narrowly behind Berlusconi’s Forza Italiaa party which is both its most direct competitor, and its possible coalition partner.

With 37 percent of seats in both houses elected on a first-past-the-post basis, the new electoral law favors the formation of such a coalition. Forza Italia, the personalized vehicle Berlusconi recreated in late 2013, hopes that a pre-election pact with the Lega will give the Right a better chance against the Democrats and M5S in these first-past-the-post contests. Moreover, dividing the seats in advance of the election also seems the surest means of safeguarding Forza Italia’s present hegemonic role on the Right. Such a bloc is also expected to include the much smaller Fratelli d’Italia which, unlike the Lega, is a direct heir to the post-fascist movement.

Opinion polls attribute the putative right-wing electoral list between 35 and 40 percent of the vote, as compared to the 29 percent an analogous coalition secured in the 2013 general election. The right-wing coalition’s victory in the Sicilian regional contest in November, with a 14 percent rise in its vote share compared to five years ago, augurs similarly well for such an alliance. The new electoral law offers no guarantees of how votes will translate into seats. But given such indicators, the broad right today looks in a stronger position than at any point since Berlusconi last left office in 2011, not least given the weakened state of the ruling Democrats.

One complication for the unity of the center- and not-so-center right comes from the distrust built up over the previous electoral cycle, intensified by the Lega’s desire to displace Forza Italia. While Berlusconi headed a right-wing electoral coalition in 2013, after the results came in his party instead joined a grand coalition with the Democrats and small centrist forces, ditching the more intransigent Lega and Fratelli. Even in recent weeks Berlusconi has floated the idea of Democratic premier Paolo Gentiloni temporarily staying in office if there is no majority, since such a lame-duck figure would be “no rival” to his own party.

While Salvini objects to such talk, and the Lega is polling far ahead the 4 percent it scored in the 2013 contest, it is easy to overstate this party’s ability to form an “anti-systemic: bloc. Indeed, Salvini’s intense competition with Berlusconi masks a de facto convergence in their policy positions. Notable in this regard is the Lega’s desertion of the European question. Having in the past organized “No Euro Day” protests around the country, Salvini — like France’s Marine Le Pen — has now retreated toward a more strictly identitarian and law-and-order platform. As both the Lega and the M5S have given up their past calls for a referendum on Italy’s use of the euro, it has become harder to see this issue being key to coalition talks after March 4.

The sidelining of the European question was the hope of Angela Merkel. In a remarkable reconciliation earlier this year, Berlusconi promised the German Chancellor that he would take charge of resisting “populism” in Italy. His rather paradoxical means of fighting this crusade is to draw the hard and far right into government, under his own control. Unable himself to stand for prime minister on account of his tax fraud conviction (pending an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights) he has attempted to impose a figure subject to his own patronage as the Right’s candidate. While Salvini insists that he must himself be the next prime minister, Berlusconi has named a host of alternatives, from a former carabinieri general to the president of the European Parliament.

At the same time, Berlusconi is also attempting to raid the political territory of the M5S, the country’s leading populist force. This rivalry is clear not only in Berlusconi’s attacks on the M5S’s “irresponsibility,” but also in his own promise, issued on December 28, of a €1,000 a month basic income for each citizen. This outstrips the M5S’s own longstanding proposal of €780. Even as Berlusconi explicitly asserted this policy’s ideological grounding — attributing it to Milton Friedman’s “negative income tax,” as part of a wider package of tax cuts — he also emphasized how beneficial it would be to Forza Italia’s own base among struggling pensioners.

The Party in Crisis

If the M5S is a major threat to Berlusconi, the Right’s main historic rival is the centrist Partito Democratico (PD). Much of the Democrats’ older activist and institutional base comes from the historic Communist Party, and to a lesser extent the Christian Democrats, both of which dissolved in the early 1990s. Under recent Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s leadership the PD continued its post-Cold War evolution from a party of the center-left to one explicitly modeled on corporate liberalism. Over the last parliamentary term it imposed a flexibilizing “Jobs Act” as well as neoliberal education reforms and measures compelling school-age Italians to work unpaid internships. Renzi is the Democrats’ candidate for premier, hoping to replace the incumbent Paolo Gentiloni, who is also a member of his party.

If the once-Northern League has refashioned itself as just Lega, Renzi’s party is yet to formally give up the name “Democratic.” Nonetheless, since his botched bid to rewrite the Italian constitution (defeated by a 60 percent vote in a December 2016 referendum), the Party has withered. Not only has its polling position collapsed from the mid-thirties to the low twenties, but it now faces more sustained opposition to its left. Those to depart in recent splits include Pierluigi Bersani (a former Communist, Party leader in the run-up to the 2013 general election), and 1998-2000 Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema. Their new party, MDP, however remained in government together with Renzi’s party and small centrist and former Berlusconian forces.

In March’s election the MDP will be part of Liberi e uguali [LeU; Free and Equal], one of the larger center-left projects outside the PD in recent years. The ex-Communist D’Alema, in recent months one of the MDP figures least keen on a pre-election pact with the PD, was part of the Third Way drift in European social democracy and barely distinguishable from Blair or Schröder at the end of the 1990s. Perhaps more tellingly of its future prospects, in response to this June’s UK general election Bersani was quick to distance the MDP’s brand of social democracy from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, insisting that as liberals they did not want to “nationalize everything.” Their project hopes to enter government with the PD, but stands separately in order to pull it at least slightly toward the left.

The MDP split was the immediate result of Renzi’s failed December 2016 bid to rewrite the 1947 Constitution, a cornerstone of Italian republican identity because of its symbolic links to the overthrow of fascism. Magistrate Anna Falcone, a leading activist in the “No” campaign opposed to these reforms, had hoped to cohere a new left-wing alliance on this basis. However, after a rather chaotic series of unity initiatives in recent months, the forces involved in the D’Alema-Bersani group as well as other small center-left parties ultimately ended up under the leadership of Piero Grasso. An anti-mafia magistrate, Grasso is current president of the Senate and until late October was a member of the PD. Their joint LeU list is currently polling around 6-7 percent.

But LeU are only one of the problems facing the Democrats and their leader Mattro Renzi, whose promise to resign if he could not push through the referendum — insisting on the need to remove barriers to his planned economic reforms — transformed a debate over specific constitutional arrangements into a more general expression of discontent at his government. Renzi’s defeat and resignation not only gravely weakened his own claims to a unique personal popularity, but also cast fresh doubt over the Blairite mantra that the Italian left’s path to victory came from trying to hold the political center. Grasso has recently stressed the need to “bring home” those who have shifted from the Left to the M5S.

The Sicilian regional election in November suggested that even the neoliberal-centrist forces previously allied to the PD are turning away from the party, as it has become less central to the overall electoral arithmetic. Popular Alternative leader Angelino Alfano, until 2013 a key lieutenant of Berlusconi’s, has over the last four years remained a solid ally of the PD in government. Indeed, he is currently foreign minister. Yet he has announced his intention to resign at the election, and already in the Sicilian contest splinters from his party, together with the Civic Choice vehicle once led by technocratic ex-prime minister Mario Monti, sided with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the victorious right-wing candidate Nello Musumeci.

These small forces’ switch in the Sicilian regional vote was a further expression of the PD’s general crisis, its candidate scoring just 18 percent as against 30 percent five years previously. Amidst the fragmented political landscape, it is still quite possible that a weakened PD will emerge as the largest single party in the March 4 national election, and its lists will also be bolstered by the integration of small liberal formations otherwise unable to pass the threshold for parliamentary representation. Yet even this is likely to bring the PD-led centrosinistra to barely 30 percent of the vote, far from able to form a majority.

The PD faces challenges common to all social-democratic parties that attempt to cling on to the center ground. If it is to win over centrist voters to a new coalition, it must plausibly be able to maintain at least passive support of its historic working-class and left-wing base. This is difficult in times of austerity, especially when the electoral system facilitates the rise of new rivals. In such circumstances, the party risks following the same path as France’s Parti Socialiste and the Dutch Labour Party, outcompeted by liberals precisely because their own base has become so hollowed out.

The Movement

Faced with the rise of a rival to the left of his party, Renzi has resorted to accusing all who split the PD vote of undermining the values of antifascism and opening the way to a new far right, a threat which his rhetoric has magnified in order to add luster to his own cause. Given the Democrats’ poor recent electoral history, it is uncertain that such calls for a pragmatic vote will have a galvanizing effect, and the emotional power of this kind of appeal to left-wing voters is in any case weakened by the reactionary “Italians first” policy emanating from the current PD Interior Minister Marco Minniti.

In recent years Renzi had hoped to realign Italian politics on something like the terms of the 2017 French presidential runoff, where crusading liberals demanded the Left’s support in holding back the Front National. Yet this simplistic imaginary was always ill-suited to fighting his own key polemical target, the M5S. A key force in the No vote in the constitutional referendum, this movement is a particular threat to the PD because of the base it has built among the young and unemployed. It is today first-placed in the opinion polls, although it is far from clearly on the road to power.

Founded in 2007 as the “Friends of Beppe Grillo,” the M5S benefited from both the collapse of the Left and the economic crisis to set itself up as the voice of the excluded, in rebellion against ”the caste” represented by mainstream center-left and center-right. The fact that even Berlusconi and the PD were from 2011 to 2013 bound by various forms of grand coalition agreement, combined with cross-party corruption scandals such as the Mafia Capitale embezzlement affair, helped “the Movement” differentiate itself from “the parties.” The M5S’s appeal owes less to specific policy proposals than its promise of political overhaul, sweeping aside the old parties and old men who dominate Italian public life.

If in the UK there was a void of political representation for the excluded youth, followed by a return to Labour, in an Italy bedeviled by mass youth unemployment the M5S was able to capture and express something of this same discontent. Nonetheless, the oppositional aspect of M5S rhetoric has dimmed over time, both thanks to its unremarkable record in local government and the broader reorientation of the party by Luigi Di Maio, its thirty-one-year-old candidate for premier. In September Di Maio paid a symbolic visit to the plush business leaders’ forum at Cernobbio, Lake Como, insisting that the M5S did not want a “populist, extremist anti-EU government,” or to hold a referendum on Italy’s euro membership.

Two recent changes in the Movement’s statutes also highlighted a shift in its direction, to become something more like the parties it so excoriates. Firstly, despite M5S’s origins as an anti-corruption movement, the police investigation against its Roman mayor Virginia Raggi for abuse of office forced it to abandon its principle of suspending any member who came under judicial scrutiny. Secondly, aware that its electoral weight (polling over 25 percent but consistently short of the 30s) offers no obvious route to government, it has abandoned a key plank of its distinction, namely its in-principle refusal to make coalitions with other parties.

The M5S has never previously made deals with the more established parties, and nor will it participate in any kind of joint electoral list for March 4. Cautious not to destabilize the Movement in the run-up to the vote, Di Maio has left rather vague what kind of coalition the M5S would consider joining. Thus far he has limited himself to stating that after the election, once the results are counted, the M5S will collaborate with any party willing to undertake its own program. Such ultimatums are well-designed to protect the party from being seen as aligning itself with either the center-left or center-right blocs.

In a recent La Stampa interview Di Maio nonetheless pointedly noted that he “would not rule out” a coalition with either LeU or the Lega. Not only has Di Maio taken the M5S to a more “possibilist” approach to coalitions than the Movement’s founder Beppe Grillo, but he is also more markedly of the Right. This is particularly evident in his harsh rhetoric on the refugee crisis, famously accusing NGOs of offering a “taxi service” across the Mediterranean for migrants. Nonetheless, it is difficult to see how such a composite force as M5S could survive coalition with such a hard-right party as the Lega.

Indeed, throughout the M5S’s existence its MPs have abstained on divisive issues of social policy such as gay civil unions or the refugee situation, precisely in order to continue presenting itself as “all things to all people.” Figures within M5S such as Roberto Fico MP have adopted far more progressive approaches to social policy than has Di Maio. While even financial scandals in M5S-ruled Rome and Livorno have not dented the Movement’s overall popularity, taking on governmental responsibility — particularly in alliance with Lega — would inevitably force its inexperienced leadership more clearly to define their agenda.

This also poses the question of whether the M5S’s “mainstreaming” can open up the anti-establishment space which it has recently been able to occupy. Interesting in this regard are developments in Naples. In the south’s largest city, Mayor Luigi de Magistris has in recent years built his own multiform populist coalition, effectively preventing the M5S establishing a foothold. The city’s Je So’ Pazzo social center, supportive of De Magistris but not politically tied to him, has now launched a national electoral initiative hoping to represent the social movements, base unions, and young unemployed and precarious workers otherwise denied a voice in this contest.

While De Magistris and other center-left figures are more aligned to Liberi e Uguali, the Potere al Popolo [Power to the People] initiative launched by Je So’ Pazzo has brought social movements in the rest of Italy together with Rifondazione Comunista—effectively the remnants of the old Communist Party — and smaller far-left forces. Their initiative does not expect to reach the 3 percent threshold for parliamentary representation, but it marks the beginning of a recomposition of the movementist left unrepresented in parliament since Rifondazione’s disaster in 2008.

Potere al Popolo has held assemblies in over a hundred locations around Italy and is attempting to break through in a hostile media landscape. Without doubt, the coming election is a challenge for an activist milieu yet to emerge from the trauma of decades past. The M5S’s strength is an expression of the weakness of social mobilization in Italy, marking it apart from populist anti-austerity movements like France Insoumise in France or Podemos in Spain. Yet basing itself on the green shoots of recovery in protest and labor organization, in this campaign Potere al Popolo might at least lay the basis of a radical alternative for the years to come.

Broad Agreemeents

Failing a fresh breakthrough for the Right, the most probable outcome is a fresh caretaker or technical government; and judging by the record of the last six years, it would likely be led by figures who are not even part of this electoral campaign. Reaching the end of the parliamentary term, caretaker premier Paolo Gentiloni gave an address noting his pride that over the last year his government had kept Italy’s institutions ticking. This was a remarkable display of complacency faced with barely 1 percent economic growth, massive emigration, and a sky-high 36 percent youth unemployment rate. His unworried “steady as she goes: approach reflects the decadence of Italian public life; and is moreover echoed by the superficial posturing of the election campaign, in which issues as significant as EU reform, the single currency, and the ongoing Italian banking crisis seem less prominent than a clash of personalities and heated rhetoric on immigration.

The very last issue to face the Italian parliament before its dissolution on December 28 illustrated this sense of impasse. A sharp debate on ius soli was supposed to define whether the children of immigrants born in Italy ought to be granted Italian citizenship. This naturally met with the strong hostility of Forza Italia, the Lega, and the post-fascist right, who boycotted the vote in parliament in order to deny the vote a quorum. Their gambit only succeeded thanks to the failure of 29 PD parliamentarians and 35 from the M5S to show up for the vote, leaving the bill suspended. This was a fitting end for a PD-led government that has slashed immigrant crossings from Libya by 87 percent.

This rejection of new Italians most obviously owes to hostility toward immigrants and fear of multiculturalism. Yet perhaps we can also see this as a natural choice for a society that offers so little even to the young people who are born to Italian parents. One recent prime minister dismissed the fears of a fragmented and casual workforce by pointing out that “Having a stable job is dull anyway;” the current PD Labour Minister insisted that it would be better for the young to leave “rather than get under our feet.”

Such contempt for the young comes easily to a political class with no plan for Italy’s future. Its unwavering commitment to the neoliberal center ground produces neither stability nor stagnation, but atomization and social despair. Today, the biggest winners from this swamp of cynicism are the Lega and M5S. With the 2008 collapse of Rifondazione Comunista, the entire post-crisis period has been marked by the absence of the radical left. Its task in the run-up to March 4 and after is to reverse a historic defeat, and open up channels that might again offer material advances and a spirit of hope to the forgotten and exploited.