Italy's populists win popularity by shaking things up

No-one in the European mainstream gave Italy's populists a great deal of credit, but they are winning popularity by shaking things up. Popular populists; how about that!

Di Maio and Salvini
Tim Hedges
On 8 August 2018 10:16

With the outlandish speechifying, rough and tumble, sturm und drang of Italian politics it is hard to reconcile oneself to the fact that this government is only ten weeks old.

It took fully two months to form, but at the end of May the outlandish idea of a coalition of the populists from both ends of the political spectrum became reality.

It was like Chancellor Merkel’s Grand Coalition, but without any of the sincerity. The Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, is less like a non-executive chairman than a referee. Not only was the government not elected with him as leader, also true of his four predecessors, but he had not even offered himself for election to parliament. He is not a politician.

Italy’s European neighbours were open mouthed at the creation of the new administration and have found it difficult to engage. The European idea is that the right people are in charge, even if the electors have to choose again until they put them in. Brussels will not be surprised, or disappointed, to hear that now there are whispers of bad blood in the ministries. Angry words have been spoken.

My own hunch is that this will blow over; indeed that it is argument that is going to hold the whole thing together.

The two parties each had a major policy commitment, and seemed irreconcilable. Five Star promised a universal basic income, which pleased its power base in the poor south. Matteo Salvini’s League, by contrast, promised a flat tax which was attractive to its supporters in the wealthy, and fully employed, north.

I wrote at the time that it wasn’t that Italy could not afford both, it was that it could afford neither.

Now this particular chicken has come home to roost: Italy’s bonds are falling (the cost of borrowing therefore rising) and there are stories of foreign investors pulling out. Their bonds are being bought by the European Central Bank’s support programme, but that is due to end before long. Money is tight.

Already there is talk about these two flagship policies being brought in bit by bit, as financial conditions permitted. In the summer heat, as Italy heads for the beaches, tempers fray and tongues loosen.

The problem is that for the Five Star leader Luigi di Maio, apart from the odd environmental promise no one cares about, Universal Basic Income is the only shot in his locker. It is the source of his power, the poor, stagnant, corrupt south seeing a way to ease its misfortunes, some oil to lubricate its rusty wheels. People would have some spending power and spending would bring production and jobs.

For Matteo Salvini of the League, however, a flat tax is something ‘devoutly to be wished’. It is not what he is about. Mr. Salvini is about immigration and as minister of the interior has put himself in charge of it.

Perhaps Salvini was alone in noticing it: Italians are kindly folk but the burst of landings from North Africa seem to have stretched their tolerance. He banned foreign charity ships from Italian ports and watched his approval ratings soar. Support has been drifting from Di Maio to Salvini, without even touching the two centre parties.

So there is bad feeling over Salvini’s success. But this will dissipate if Di Maio is allowed a bit of progress on his Basic Income.

In the meantime, the government is surprisingly popular, and they should start listening to the people. What the voters want from this strange hybrid of populists is an upheaval. It was an extremely popular move to cancel the super-pensions those in authority have awarded themselves and now they want more.

The Italians finally see their caste system is outdated. All the money is in the hands of the wrong people. It is not just the politicians who are paying themselves too much (although they are) it is that favours are paid off with plum, overpaid jobs; people who have kept quiet rather than blowing whistles are rewarded.

Right through national government, through outliers like the state media and the subsidies to newspapers, through the bloated local government maze and into the universities and industry, meritocracy is a forgotten word, friends and favours are the governing philosophy. ‘One hand’, the Italians say of favours, ‘washes the other.’

It is this that the people want changed, and they know that this government is the only one that is going to change it. That is why it will probably carry on.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy her


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