Italy's populist government rides high in the polls
The people of Italy believe, not without some justification, that their country has been ruined by a caste of people which has feathered its own nest. What the oddball combination of Di Maio and Salvini has done is to understand this discontent and to channel it. Unless the mainstream in Europe engages in radical self-reflection and reform, the populists will continue to have the ear of the people
There was a belief in Tony Blair’s government in the UK that if a story remained in the headlines for more than a week it became damaging to the administration.
In Italy, given the right headline, the opposite has proved to be the case. Two stories have dominated the headlines recently and the government is riding high in the polls.
The first is the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genova on 14th August. Since that date there has been a constant stream of allegation over who knew what and when and what they said about it and to whom.
Forty-three people died when the bridge fell and it has become a national tragedy. It was part of one of the country’s principal motorways, connecting Italy with France. Many of the deaths were foreigners, bringing an enhanced sense of national shame.
It is important given the national significance to know what the people think of this. They think that there may have been corruption in the awarding of the building contracts. They think that the maintenance contract, which allows the operator to perform a certain amount of maintenance and repairs then sit back and collect the tolls, may have been poorly negotiated.
This is a country where in the capital you often see the burnt out shells of buses which have caught fire while in operation due to no maintenance. The public understands you can get away with skiving on a maintenance contract for quite some time; then you can’t.
The major shareholders in the motorways are the Benetton family, whom everyone knows to be extremely rich. Why, people ask, would they branch off from fashion to motorway maintenance if it weren’t that they knew there was a lot of money to be made?
Their new government’s response has been exactly what the public wanted. Salvini, Di Maio and Conte have expressed grief with those suffering and outrage that the disaster has happened. At the state funeral members of the government were cheered whilst ex-politicians were booed.
The enquiry should get to the bottom of this and not be scared to point the finger at those to blame. That is what the people want.
The other matter in the news is immigration. In June this year the MV Aquarius, leased by the charity SOS Mediterranee, with 629 Sudanese and Bangladeshi migrants on board, applied for entry to Italy and was denied by Matteo Salvini. It eventually went to Spain.
This is an action which in most western European countries would provoke demands for the Interior Minister’s resignation. Since then, Salvini has even refused to allow an Italian coastguard vessel to unload its migrants until there were promises from other countries to take them.
Again, the important thing here is what the public believes. They have seen on the news the evidence that some NGOs were in contact with people traffickers, meeting them just outside territorial waters. They believe that the European Union should take its fair share of migrants because they believe that is what the European Union is about.
The people of Italy believe, not without some justification, that their country has been ruined by a caste of people which has feathered its own nest. Friends, relatives and contacts have got the plum jobs. The widespread low-level corruption has fitted in neatly with the high-level nastiness of organised crime.
The Italians believe that immigration is changing their country for good, and that some people are making money out of that, too. You get €40 per person per day to house them and give them €3 worth of pasta and vegetables.
What the oddball combination of Di Maio and Salvini has done is to understand this discontent and to channel it. They may not last, they may not succeed, but right now the old parties are irrelevant.
What the people know is that the old lot, Renzi, Berlusconi, Monti, Prodi have certainly failed and the new lot might, might just, succeed.
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 here
We are wholly dependent on the kindness of our readers for our continued work. We thank you in advance for any support you can offer.