In Italy, establishment’s clash with populists will only embitter voters


There’s plenty not to like about Italy’s populist parties. The Five Star Movement and the League seem to lack an in-depth understanding of key policy issues, appreciation for the hard work of governing, and the habit of thinking before speaking. From different ideological angles — Five Star from the left, the League from the right — both have challenged decades-long policies of European integration.

But, in the March 4 elections, the populists won half the vote and comfortable majorities in both houses of the Italian parliament. Quite appropriately, President Sergio Mattarella tasked them with forming a government. They returned with an agreed government program and list of ministers.

{mosads}But Mattarella then triggered a political crisis on May 27 by nixing the proposed candidate for minister of the Treasury, economist Paolo Savona, a known Eurosceptic. The president subsequently named an unelected and theoretically non-partisan economist, Carlo Cottarelli, to try forming a government. But there was no serious reason to believe Cottarelli could find a parliamentary majority. Mattarella’s objective was in fact to push the country toward early elections.


The “Establishment” in both Italy and the European Union more broadly, as well as the editorial board of the New York Times, hoped that new elections would give Italian voters a chance to recover their sanity and vote for parties that European Union authorities, notably those dealing with financial matters, would consider more trustworthy. Mattarella spoke of the need to protect the savings of ordinary Italians from the consequences of an Italian withdrawal from the Euro. (Not the stated policy of Five Star and the League, by the way.) But it was the German EU Budget Commissioner Guenther Oettinger who, though later forced to apologize, more accurately captured the spirit of the moment:

“My concern and my expectation is that the development of the markets in Italy, of bonds and the economy, will become so radical that it could become a signal to voters not to vote for populists on the right or left.” 

As of May 31, however, the option of a populist government, was still alive, with the leaders of the League and Five Star, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, negotiating on a new government team with the controversial Savona in a less neuralgic ministry. But it was not yet clear they could arrive at a solution that President Mattarella could accept without having to eat too much crow.

The political crisis is about more, however, than just forming a specific government. It illustrates the difficulty Italy’s democratic political system is having with the today’s new political realities. To be sure, Five Star’s call, in the heat of the moment, for Mattarella’s impeachment was utterly baseless. The president knows very well his powers under the Italian constitution. It is a mistake to treat the presidency as a “largely ceremonial” role.  It is the president who officially nominates the members of the government (upon the prime minister’s recommendation), who decides whether and when to dissolve the legislature and call new elections, and who has to okay legislation the government wants to submit to the legislature. Broadly speaking, the president is supposed to be the guarantor of the proper functioning of Italy’s governing institutions.

The odd part, from an American perspective, is that, while the Italian president actually can do a great deal to shape political developments, as both Mattarella and his predecessor Giorgio Napolitano have done, the role is what Italians call “institutional.” It is in theory above politics and intended to serve the interests of the “State” with a capital “S.” Presidents are supposed to doff their lifelong political allegiances and work for the common good, though in practice that is difficult.

Also striking is the fact that Italian presidents are not popularly elected. They are elected by the legislators, in a process that is normally more about finding a consensus candidate than choosing between different ideologies or approaches to the presidency. 

President Mattarella is in fact the quintessential representative of the Italian Establishment. Otherwise he would not be in the job. His veto of Savona and attempt to generate early elections, however, raised the issue of how far an official with no popular mandate can and should go in challenging the expressed will of Italian voters. One could argue that the president’s role is to protect the Italian political system, and Italian voters, from themselves. But in today’s interconnected world, voters chafe under such paternalistic tutelage. 

President Mattarella’s choice of former IMF official Cottarelli to try forming a government was a reminder of the distrust of politics and of the popular will that has featured prominently in the Italian style of governance.  Italy has a long history of calling on technocrats to govern from a perspective putatively above politics. As recently as 2011-2013, technocrat Mario Monti, economist and former European commissioner, served as prime minister. His successor Enrico Letta (2013-2014), while a representative of the moderate left Democrat party, could be considered largely a technocrat as well.

This is frankly out of step with the popular mood in Italy, one of anger at the state of the country, the lack of opportunity, and the elites who have run the country since the end of World War II. The details of ideology count for less than they did during the Cold War. Politics has become more visceral.

The populists may yet get their chance to govern. To put it diplomatically, they would have a very steep learning curve, coming up against the harsh realities of the real world Italian economy, EU constraints, etc., and voters would have to judge their performance.

This might be better than trying to keep them out of government, relying on magical thinking about new elections. The latest polls predict a major surge for the League, and, if correct, the populist parties would be stronger than they already are. Even if the League returned instead to a center-right coalition, its dominance over Berlusconi’s Let’s Go Italy would be undisputed. And, in any case, new elections would just further stoke Italians’ bitterness and distrust of institutions.

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.

Tags Constitution of Italy Europe Government Italian law Italian Parliament Luigi Di Maio Matteo Salvini Politics of Italy Populism President of Italy Prime Ministers of Italy Sergio Mattarella

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