Italy's new government is unlikely to break with the past

The left-right coalition represents a continuation of the old, discredited politics - and a victory for Berlusconi.

When compared to other geographical areas Italian politics often looks very colourful. This is the nation which, in some ways, still represents a sort of laboratory for the western world, and acts like a model for other countries – from the building of the nation-states to the rise of fascism and the contemporary relations between media and power. This went along with the presence of characters like Garibaldi, Berlusconi, and, of course, Beppe Grillo. Different to some northern European states, Italy also experiences high levels of politicisation in national life, and a strong political and ideological polarisation and fragmentation. This contributed in making Italian politics so argumentative and, often, quarrelling.

Yet, miracles, at times, happen and for the second time in a row a "grand coalition" is being established, gathering together the centre-left and the centre-right. A government led by one of the leaders of the Partito Democratico, Enrico Letta, has been established. It is clear that Italy does need a government and a leadership. But is this the right one to deal with the economic and social turmoil Italy faces? President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, talked about the need for "unity", like during the years of the anti-fascist Resistance (probably overlooking that politicians in Berlusconi’s party never rejected interwar fascism). Other commentators looked instead excited at the welcome, but cosmetic-only presence of young and female senior ministers. A source from the Partito Democratico even suggested that they had to back it because this government represented a "chance" for Italy.

Along with an evident lack of political strategy, the centre-left is showing a quite high degree of hypocrisy. Over the years, anti-Berlusconism was the only magnet to keep together some of its own forces and streams – and these anti-Berlusconi stances are very strong in the leftist electorate. At the same time, their poor attitudes contributed to the incredible endurance of Berlusconi’s political activity, and recently to the rise of Grillo's Five Star Movement. It also seems that they hardly learned from the history of Italian elections. Elections took place on 24-25 February, and the Partito Democratico was leading in polls. However, Berlusconi came very close, and the centre-left could not gain any realistic and stable parliamentary majority. Following the establishment of this governmental coalition, the real winner is Berlusconi, the one politician who many European elites and international organisations would have loved to see disappear.

We might wonder what these leading foreign and economic forces think about this development – especially if we consider that Berlusconi has recently employed anti-EU and anti-Euro propaganda which generated criticisms in Brussels. Moreover, it is unclear what this mixture of centre-right, centre-left, and liberal politicians will do in foreign policy, economic plans, conflict of interests, unemployment, and, intriguingly given Berlusconi’s ongoing trials, justice. It will probably be the centre-left losing votes again as it happened following their backing of Mario Monti's technocratic government. Berlusconi will, in fact, play the card of elections when he feels to be strong enough. He has already done this, and then played an electoral campaign against austerity, Germany, and the same Monti (after having initially supported him).

In some ways, Grillo won too. The left-right coalition gives strength to his argument that all parties are the same. However, millions of Italian people voted against traditional politics, against austerity (at least in part) and the technocratic government of Monti, yet they end up now with this type of catch-all government. The coalition also represents an attempt to react against Grillo and common citizens voting for the Five Star Movement. Traditional parties prefer to stay together, hoping that the economy will improve and Grillo lose votes. However, this is well in line with the ethical decline of contemporary Italian politics too. This is, in fact, the outcome of a couple of decades of failing political elites. Many people, and especially the youth, voted for the Five Stars because they wanted a moralisation of public life, meritocracy, cuts to politicians' privileges, a halt to the brain drain, and have deputies pursuing collective interests. A good part of the centre-left electorate also probably hoped that a new political era could start after years of Berlusconism, scandals, bribery, foreign media attention, and economic downward. Will a government backed by the heirs of the Bunga Bunga-like politics reverse the economic trend, save the country from mafia and corruption, and regain international prestige and the votes of the young generations?

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is author of a forthcoming book on transnational neo-fascism (Cambridge University Press) and coedited “Italy Today. The Sick Man of Europe” (Routledge)

Slight ritorno: Berlusconi, in the Italian senate on 30 April 2013. (Photo: Getty.)

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern and contemporary Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit