Italy's populist government is still a work in progress

Italy's populist government is still a work in progress
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A populist government for Italy?

Making predictions about Italian politics is risky. If forced, though, I still would bet that Italy will be the first country in Western Europe to have a purely populist government. After coming tantalizingly close on Sunday, two days later the Five Star movement, the biggest vote-getter in the March 4 elections, and the League, which trounced its allies in the center-right coalition and headed off toward greener pastures, were still at work on their joint government program and on who would head the new Italian government. President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella, who acts as a sort of referee, granted their request for more time, though it’s fair to ask whether he was giving Five Star and the League some needed space, or more rope to hang themselves.

A populist government might well adopt a budget-busting and EU rule-violating economic policy, and both parties have raised questions about decade-long pillars of Italian foreign policy like European integration, NATO, and the relationships with the U.S. and Russia. But Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio and his League counterpart Matteo Salvini deserve some credit for showing a more pragmatic and compromising spirit than one might have expected, based on their rowdy campaign styles.

The pairing is not an entirely natural one. Both parties are populist in the anti-establishment “drain the swamp” sense. The fact that they won roughly 50 percent of the vote demonstrates the profound dissatisfaction of Italians with the status quo and established elites. The other parties have lessons to learn.

But Five Star and the League also represent two different types of populism, respectively of the left and of the right. The League, with its strong anti-immigrant views and focus on small business, is closer to what we usually think of as populism in the U.S. The Five Star Movement’s support for social spending projects like a guaranteed wage and its environmentalist streak can look leftist.

The demographics of their voters also differ dramatically. Five Star is strongest among 18 to 30 year-olds, while the League does best in the 45 to 68 age group. The former’s bastion is in Southern Italy, while the League, despite efforts to become a more genuinely national party, still draws its strength from more prosperous Northern Italy. Five Star’s voters are much more highly educated than the League’s. At the same time, Five Star does extremely well among the unemployed and precariously employed (many of them university educated) and students, while the League does best among those who are self-employed or have private sector jobs to protect. The constituencies are perhaps complementary, but with interests that are difficult to reconcile.

Nonetheless, the parties seem to have worked out, broadly speaking, a compromise government program including:

  1.  A simplified tax system with only two brackets and much lower income tax rates. (The current top marginal tax rate is 43 percent for all income over roughly $90,000.)
  2.  A guaranteed minimum income of ca. $930.00 per month.
  3.  Spreading out asylum-seekers among all EU countries, with increased funding for repatriation.
  4.  Some easing of age and work requirements for retirement.

5.. Expansion of free child care and increased attention to people with disabilities.

  1.  More police, but the parties are divided over how to deal with Italy’s growing Muslim community.

How to pay for all this? Italy already has a hard time staying within the budget parameters for the Euro, and its accumulated national debt is very high. Perhaps populists just feel comfortable with budget deficits, and both parties are, at a minimum, Eurosceptic and don’t revere policies set outside Italy.

The League’s Salvini and Five Star’s Di Maio also came around to a partial compromise on the issue of who should head the new Italian government, i.e. the president (or chair) of the Council of Ministers, to whom we somewhat inaccurately refer as prime minister.

Each actually had a sound claim to lead the government: Di Maio as standard bearer for the party that got the most votes (almost 33 percent), and Salvini as head of the largest party within the center-right coalition, which actually got more votes (37 percent, with over 17 percent going to the League specifically). Backing off those claims has not been quick or easy, but it offers the chance to propose a head of government candidate less polarizing than either Di Maio or Salvini, though it’s not yet clear who that person will be.

The Five Star and League chiefs have plenty of impetus to be realistic. True, they might improve their results, perhaps only marginally, if Italy goes to new elections because of an inability to form a government. But why take the risk, given their very good results in the March elections? Together, Five Star and the League have relatively comfortable majorities in both houses of the Italian legislature: 352 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 170 of 315 seats in the Senate.

Admittedly, changing allegiance in search of personal advantage has a long history in Italian legislatures. But where exactly could any turncoats go? With current numbers, a reconstituted center-right coalition would not have a governing majority. The Democrats, the main party of the moderate left, would not be a viable partner. They were brutalized in the March elections and are happy to be in opposition. They also despise historic center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, who is once again able to run for and hold political office.

It is not clear that Di Maio and Salvini will succeed in forging agreement, or how long they can govern if they do. But it makes sense to let them try. Admonitions from Brussels or other European “Establishment” sources like the Financial Times are probably counterproductive. Five Star and the League are the ones who got the votes, for reasons that are actually quite understandable. The only theoretically apolitical presidents of the Republic, who are not popularly elected, can’t pull the strings forever. Let an Italian populist government fight things out, if necessary, in its bilateral relations, at the EU, and at NATO headquarters. One can see a steep learning curve ahead. But so be it.

Eric Terzuolo's parents came to the U.S. from the Piemonte region in northwestern Italy. He was an officer in the U.S. Foreign Service, and since 2010 has taught at the Foreign Service Institute, the professional development unit of the Department of State. As a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State, he served twice in Italy, including as Minister-Counselor for Political Affairs in Rome.