Italy’s “populists” come on board

Since we last looked at Italy a fortnight ago, there’s been quite a lot of good analysis around on what’s going on there. Here’s Hannah Roberts the other day at Politico, for example, on the crisis of identity within the Five-Star Movement. There was also a very interesting virtual seminar yesterday hosted by the European Studies Association of Australia and New Zealand.

One of the good things about the discussion is that it’s forcing people to be more explicit about what they mean by “populism”, rather than just using it as a catch-all term that obscures important distinctions. Regular readers will know that this has been a concern of mine for some time.

A quick recap first: earlier this month Mario Draghi, an independent technocrat, was commissioned to form a new government in Italy after the resignation of Giuseppe Conte, who had headed a coalition between the Five-Stars and the centre-left. Draghi succeeded in drawing in the support of all the main political players, with the exception of Brothers of Italy, one of the two far-right parties. The other far-right party, Matteo Salvini’s League, agreed to join the new government.

As a result, Draghi won votes of confidence in both houses of parliament by huge margins. His cabinet includes ministers from six different parties, as well as several other independents. The reaction to this development has been mostly positive, but there have been a number of sceptics (like me), who question whether this sort of government is good for democracy.

Part of the worry is the usual one about grand coalitions – of the sort that we’ve seen repeatedly in Germany in recent years. Electoral competition is diminished; parties that are governing together are unable to properly differentiate themselves, and the few parties that stay out, usually on the political fringe, are elevated to undeserved prominence. Voters feel that their choices don’t matter, so they either lose interest or gravitate to anti-establishment forces.

These are legitimate worries, and they argue strongly against resorting to grand coalitions more frequently than is necessary. But as long as it is seen as exceptional rather than the norm, it seems to me that the grand coalition is a legitimate option and need not do lasting damage to democracy. There is something to be gained, after all, from a reminder that politicians from different parties all desire the welfare of their country and are at a pinch willing to co-operate for the greater good.

The concern about technocracy, however, while easily run together with this, is something separate. Putting administrators rather than politicians in charge sends a message that is more than just national unity in an emergency: it’s also a statement that the problems the country faces are technical or administrative rather than political, and that therefore politicians have the wrong skills to solve them.

Sometimes, of course, that may be true; I don’t suggest that technocracy be ruled out entirely as an option. But as I said last time, I don’t think it’s currently the case in Italy. And the fact that Draghi has brought senior politicians into his cabinet suggests that he is not committed to that message either. The jury is still out on whether this will end up looking more like a grand coalition or a traditional technocratic administration.

It’s the politics of the new government that I find particularly interesting. I’ve argued before that the biggest threat to democracy comes from the absence (or disappearance) of a strong and stable mainstream centre-right party. I suggested earlier this month that Draghi may have ambitions to help create that by detaching Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia from its allies further right.

The split on the right has indeed happened, but in a different fashion: Berlusconi and Salvini have stayed together, leaving Brothers of Italy out in the cold. Marco Brunazzo argued at yesterday’s seminar that Berlusconi was the big winner from the new arrangement, but it looks to me more as if the players are setting themselves for a post-Berlusconi future.

It’s unrealistic to think that Italy in the long run can support two major far-right parties. Salvini seems to have decided that he’s the one who will tack towards the centre, with the aim of ultimately inheriting most of Berlusconi’s support while preserving his own power base. It’s a gamble, but staying out would also have been risky; it would have looked bad if Draghi succeeded without him, yet voters would also blame him if he forced an early election.

Salvini’s move can be described as a turn away from “populism”: the League has gone from demonising the European Union’s bureaucrats to agreeing to serve under one. But the reason the “populist” label was never very helpful is that Salvini’s party was primarily driven by its ideological commitments, not its anti-establishment rhetoric. If those commitments are going to shift, that matters much more than the rhetorical spin that accompanies them.

The Five-Stars, on the other hand, are populist in the original sense; their anti-establishmentism was fundamental to their makeup, so joining such a very establishment government is probably more traumatic for them. But it’s a sort of trauma that movements like that are no stranger to. (I find myself writing about it in relation to the Five-Stars as far back as 2013.) Either you remain forever just a protest movement, or else at some point you have to take some responsibility and agree to participate in government, with the various compromises that that entails.

If the Five-Stars are to remain a coherent force, they too will probably have to develop some ideological commitment, perhaps emerging as something more like a Green party. (They did once try to join the European Greens group.) But they too would have suffered if they were seen to be turning their back on national unity in a crisis.

So for now at least, Draghi has as broad a support base as he could possibly have wished for. It will be interesting to see what he does with it.

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