MILAN — So Italy will not be the first country in Western Europe to be led by Euroskeptic populists after all. Or, at least, not for the next few months. On Sunday, Italy’s head of state, President Sergio Mattarella blocked the formation of a new government supported by the far-right League and the anti-establishment 5Stars Movement, a sort of “grand coalition of the extremes.”
The two parties wanted Paolo Savona, an 82-year-old technocrat who has fantasized in public about a “secret plan to leave the euro,” as the all-powerful economy minister. And they refused to back down when Mattarella pushed back. The Italian president probably feared the effect of Savona’s appointment on a number of treasury auctions this week, and that Italy losing access to the bond markets was a very concrete possibility.
What happens now? Mattarella has sent for Carlo Cottarelli, an International Monetary Fund technocrat who is widely known in Italy as an enemy of government waste. (He was a consultant in charge of the government spending review, before then-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi fired him.) Cottarelli may form a new executive and go for a confidence vote to the chambers. He’s unlikely to win a plurality, but will be able to stay on to the next election, which seem likely to be held in September or October.
Politics sometimes is gambling with other people’s money. League leader Matteo Salvini staged a dust-up over the appointment of Savona, so he can go back to the ballot in the hope of cashing in on a post-election surge in popularity. Mattarella, for his part, gambled that the next three months will see major changes in the Italian political scene, resulting in an electoral outcome completely different from the last one. Nothing is certain, at the moment.
In refusing to give a green light to the new government, the Italian presidentstressed he would consider the impact to people’s savings, which the Italian constitution “encourages” and, crucially, “protects.” Governments may jeopardize them by accident, but not on purpose. In his speech, Mattarella has also performed the quintessential political act: He has chosen the electoral battlefield.
The president of the republic has made allegiance to the European Union and the euro an implicit theme of the next electoral campaign. Referenda on international treaties are prohibited by the Italian constitution, but that’s nonetheless in effect what the next electoral campaign will be.
If the next election is to be a Yes/No referendum on the euro, it is difficult to forecast how it will go. To be sure, the Euroskeptics start with a considerable advantage: Their moderate counterparts, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Renzi’s Democratic Party, are in shambles.
But it also means the two parties — whose prospective coalition government foundered on the reef of Savona’s history with the common currency — will also have to finally be straight with voters about their position on the EU and the euro, something they’ve avoided discussing before.
In the last campaign, Salvini grew the League’s support to 17 percent of the vote by focusing on immigration and lower taxes, keeping its Euroskepticism somehow in the background. The 5Stars Movement, led by “moderate” Luigi Di Maio, repeatedly assured it has no intention of calling for an exit from the euro.
Italians are clearly fed up with an establishment that they consider rotten and inconclusive. Their rage should not be underestimated. But they are also still big “savers.” Italian families directly own some 5 percent of the country’s public debt. House ownership rate is very high too (over 70 percent). It is improbable that, no matter how carefully planned, an exit from the euro will be costless for Italian citizens.
Another reason both parties did well is that their voters feared a grand coalition of the centrists. Leftists couldn’t stand the idea of an alliance with their old archenemy, Silvio Berlusconi; rightists didn’t want Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party to stay in power.
Shouldn't a similar mutual exclusivity apply to the League and the 5Stars, now that they've expressed a desire to govern together?
The League won big in the North, the most productive part of the country, home to all the companies that makes Italy's the world 8th largest exporter. The 5Stars, meanwhile, achieved a spectacular success in the South, which seeks more transfers from the North, in one form or another (including the party's central electoral promise: a universal basic income).
There are few reasons — aside from antipathy to the euro or rage against the establishment — for the supporters of either party to be enthusiastic about a coalition with the other.
It is often said that populists play on people's fears. In Italy, they did so: the fear of growing uncertainty, law and order, migration.
But the fear of an impending financial disaster can affect voters' behavior too. Sadly, for the Europhilic camp, it doesn't have a political entrepreneur ready to capitalize on it.
An Italian Emmanuel Macron is unlikely to appear in the next few weeks. The electoral law, for one, doesn't help. It is a complicated mixture of a pure proportional representation system and a semi-first past the post one. It incentivizes coalitions but it doesn't have a second round, like in the French presidential elections, where voters can coalesce around the least disagreeable choice.
Italians are sailing in uncharted waters. It is precisely in these situations that prudence is most needed. But in contemporary politics — and particularly in contemporary Italian politics — prudence is not much of a vote-getter.