The deep shift in Italian politics

The Italian elections have resulted in the unexpected defeat of the past governments, and with the success of Five Star Movement and the League have opened an opposition attitude towards eurozone's policy.

The possibility of forming a new government in Italy appears and disappears with the speed of a ray of sunshine in these rainy days of May. More than two months after the March 4 elections, the political labyrinth is intricate, and President of the Republic Mattarella has given an unpredictably long time to find the way out. But there is a boulder that obstructs the road: that is, the relationship with the budget constraints fixed by the eurozone.

Neither the Five Star Movement nor the League demand the exit from the eurozone. But one fact is certain: their programs are more or less incompatible with the budgetary constraints imposed by Brussels. It is not by chance that three members of the European Commission reminded us of that with an arrogant and threatening tone. The fact that the elections have resulted in the defeat of the governments - which succeeded one from the other from Monti to Letta, Renzi and then Gentiloni - proposing a political radical alternative, is part of a normal democratic exercise - not a scandal.

The electoral result of March 4 may not be liked by the old mainstream political set, but its meaning is unequivocal. The two parties that have dominated Italian politics in the last quarter of a century have got a total number of votes less than the Five Star Movement alone. And the rightwing League has overtaken Berlusconi's Forza Italia that for a quarter of a century had been at the center of Italian politics. The Financial Times has titled his editorial comment  (Rome opens its gates to the modern barbarians, May 15). The Italian press was indignant for the comment that evocated the barbarians entering to Rome.

But there is a question: Was the mainstream Italian press justifiably outraged by the definition of "barbarism" attributed to the two parties that legitimately won the elections? I  don’t think this. The City newspaper expresses an opinion that, yes, cannot but hit the sensitivity of the great Italian press. But different are the reasons. It is useful to closely look at the comment. After recalling with an amused tone  the sack of Rome on 410 by the Visigoths under the command of King Alaric, the  Financial Times, more seriously, writes:

 “Neither Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio nor the League’s Matteo Salvini is King Alaric of the Visigoths. The two parties enjoy unquestionable democratic legitimacy, having won the elections. It is right that they should have an opportunity to govern Italy....the victors have achieved their success fair and square. …For at least 20 years, Italy’s national story has been one of economic stagnation, halfhearted reforms and at times woeful misgovernment. Should Five Star and the League …fail, voters will have the chance to punish them in future elections”. In the end, FT draws a line of demarcation that Italian mainstream politics considers treacherous; A Five Star-League government might find itself at odds with the fiscal orthodoxies of other EU governments and the European Commission. The EU would be justified in standing its ground. Still, it should recognize that Italy’s chief problem over the past two decades has not been budget deficits but a lack of economic growth and insufficient institutional reform. These are areas where the EU can and should work constructively with Italy’s next government — even if it means humouring the iconoclastic rhetoric of Five Star and the League”.

Undoubtedly, there is enough to infuriate the establishment's Italian press: The European Union is a topic that always deserves a religious respect. One can, of course, look critically at the program that the two parties endeavor to define, aiming to overcome, or trying to mediate, positions that were originally conflicting. The judgment on the outcome can remain reserved. Yet, it cannot ignore the failure of the governments that preceded the radical political shift of March 4th.

The eurozone was created in 1999, at the height of a phase of economic development of the European Union, with the promise of maintaining and improving the economic standards of the member countries. Twenty years later, it is indeed the area with the lowest growth and the highest unemployment rate in the western world. And Italy is, within the eurozone, the country with the lowest long-term growth and the highest level of unemployment since the eighties. If this data is not sufficient to give a judgment of bankruptcy on the governments that in the past have alternated with each other, from Berlusconi’s to Renzi’s governments, one must ask about which any other yardstick should be judged a long-standing government.

Of course, it would have been far more reassuring and appreciable if a meaningful change, now claimed by the two winning parties, would have been advanced by a left-wing coalition. This was not the case. A left-wing coalition could have proposed a platform based on the golden rule of an effective tax progressivity, instead of two low rates (16 and 20 percent) clearly favoring the richest. And could have assessed a civilized attitude, different from the one that informs the League, that is aimed to discriminate against immigrants from countries like Syria, a country devastated by the war, with Western complicity; as well as migrants coming from Africa, driven by the poverty that afflicts a large part of the old colonial empires. A different policy would have been preferred not only by Italy's leadership but also by the  European one, starting by France that has sealed its borders.

In any case, the defeat of the center-left parties in Italy is not an isolated accident The debacle of  Renzi’s Democratic Party was not an exception. Throughout the eurozone, the social-democratic left has generally been humiliated by the popular vote. France is the most shocking example. Without the determination of Mitterrand and Delors, the euro would hardly have come into existence. But, today, the French Socialist Party, after five years of Francois Hollande's rule, has disappeared from the scene, reduced to 6 percent of the vote.

On the other side, the German SPD, which should have been proud of itself for its historic leaders like Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt, has recorded in the past parliamentarian elections the lowest post-war result, becoming the little dog on the leash of the steely Mrs. Merkel. We could continue with the PSOE, the party that has led post-Franco Spain for a longer time, reduced to supporting from the outside the old Rajoy's ultra-conservative government. So, Matteo Renzi can comfort himself: His defeat was not a solitary one within the eurozone. The whole European left-wing movement has immolated itself on the altar of the euro.

About the newly announced government in Italy different predictions can be made. But one fact is certain: the most important challenge is going to be the relationship with the eurozone. Its position will be strongly opposed by the European Commission and by the German government, as well as by the domestic dominant establishment. Yet,it is a matter of fact that the policies of the past governments have been tested in all their variants, and they have all proved disastrous. 

The Italian electorate, having had the opportunity, has democratically rejected them. After all, this is the salt of democracy. Even though the bet on future political development is doubtful, the judgment on the past does not admit any reasonable uncertainty. One can only hope that the new government will try, notwithstanding harsh difficulties, to get the country out of the labyrinth in which it has been hunted, experiencing, whatever could be the reservations, the alternative on offer trough the March 4th electoral outcome.

Antonio Lettieri