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24 March 2021

Why Italy remains ungovernable

Following a tough winter in lockdown, in January the nation treated itself to a new political psychodrama. 

By Tim Parks

You can take away Christmas, you can take away New Year’s Eve, but you can’t deny Italians their right to a government crisis. Coming out of a tough holiday lockdown in early January, understandably on edge, the nation treated itself to a political psychodrama that beat anything I have seen in my 40 years in the country. A little parliamentary context is in order.

Imagine two legislative houses – the Senate, the Chamber of Deputies – both with absolutely equal powers but differently elected and constituted so that it is very likely one will cancel out the other. Imagine also a bewilderingly complex electoral ­system, part proportional representation, part first-past-the-post, that guarantees maximum alienation between elected members and electorate; this together with a tradition of political fragmentation that prevents any single party from ever holding a majority in either house.

Now add to this recipe for ungovernability the enticement of very high salaries for senators and deputies (around twice those of British MPs) and the charming bribe of a pension should the parliament serve out its full term. You can safely look forward to five years of directionless muddle.

Elections in March 2018 returned a spectacularly hung parliament. The anti-system Five Star Movement (M5S) stormed to a relative majority in both houses, but had sworn it would never govern with any of the traditional parties. Variously allied on the left and right, the traditional parties returned the compliment. Only after three months of wrangling was a bizarre coalition formed between M5S and the populist League, which abandoned its election partners on the right – an outcome no one would have wanted when they cast their votes.

[See also: Populism without the people]

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With neither Movement nor League ready to concede the prime-ministership to the other, a handsome, unelected nobody was called in from outside: lawyer and professor Giuseppe Conte is a man of great charm, greater vanity and a simply infinite capacity for fudge.

All well, then, until summer 2019, when Matteo Salvini, head of the League, his popularity soaring thanks to his tough anti-immigration stance, called a no-confidence vote on the government and demanded elections. A mistake. He had reckoned without the lure of that pension. Sworn enemies, but both languishing in the polls, the centre-left Democrats (PD) and M5S chose to cling together to avoid an electoral massacre. Conte was delighted to continue as prime minister and start undoing for PD much of what he had just done for the League.

Still, this ramshackle brigade could hardly have survived for long had it not been for Covid-19. All at once, as of March 2020, they had a clear mission: to lock us all up so we didn’t fall ill. Having declared a more or less permanent state of emergency they could then govern by decree, largely ignoring parliament. Conte delivered dramatic late-night announcements to the nation from his Facebook account. In very short order he became the most popular man in the country.

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This was only to be hoist with the petard of his greatest achievement: the EU Recovery Fund. Conte had insisted and insisted that the EU must help bail Italy out. In the end the country was granted €81bn in grants and €127bn in cheap loans, on condition – here was the rub – that it produce a credible plan for spending the money. With any number of competing claims on the cash, Conte procrastinated, always seeking to keep the project away from parliament.

Enter Renzi.

***

Matteo Renzi is the most hated man in Italy. When he became prime minister as leader of PD in 2014, at only 39 years old, he was the most loved. He is charismatic, self-assured, bitingly intelligent. This is fine when you are on the rise, but not in power. In power one must consult with everyone and appear humble. One must talk about change but never really try to effect it. One must seem protective, avuncular. It wasn’t Renzi’s style. The moment the mainstream press – notoriously choral in Italy – started referring to him as “arrogant”, you knew he would soon be reduced to the ranks.

Conte’s second government had barely been formed when Renzi split from PD, taking 26 deputies and 14 senators with him to form Italia Viva – Italy Alive. With this micro-party he would keep the executive on its toes. Crucially, in the Senate he just about held the balance of power. Conte, he said, must open his spending plans to parliamentary scrutiny. Conte resisted, confident in his now astonishing popularity. On 13 January 2021 Renzi withdrew his party from the government, leaving it without a majority.

Across the country, in every ­newspaper, and on radio and TV shows, pundits declared themselves appalled. Twitter stormed. Where cafés were open, the ­customers fumed over their cappuccini. A political crisis in a pandemic! If elections were called, Renzi would be responsible for thousands of deaths. He was a demon, Conte a saint.

[See also: Alone in the new world]

In the Senate a frantic search began to find 20 or so “responsibles” who would betray their parties and keep Conte in power and on our TV screens. It was a cattle market. Renzi struggled to keep his troops compact, amid invitations to defect and an avalanche of insults on social media. Very occasionally, in the more serious papers, someone might observe in passing that, whatever Renzi’s motives, it wasn’t altogether unreasonable to demand parliamentary scrutiny for plans to spend vast sums of money. This was rare.

In the crucial vote on 19 January a motley crew of turncoats was duly found and, with Italia Viva shrewdly abstaining, Conte survived. Cue nationwide rejoicing. Nevertheless, Renzi still held the balance of power, if he chose to use it. Aware that this would make government dangerously precarious, President Sergio Mattarella asked Conte to find a more stable majority. He couldn’t, and resigned on 26 January.

At this point a public lynching of Renzi would hardly have raised an eyebrow, though he insisted throughout that there was no danger of elections: deputies would support some other PM rather than risk the privileges that come with seeing out the parliament. So it was. After a frenetic week attempting to bring Italia Viva back into the fold, on 3 February Mattarella invited Mario Draghi to form a government for the two remaining years of this legislature.

***

In a blink of 60 million Italian eyes, Conte was eclipsed. Yes, he was a saint, but Draghi is a god. As president of the European Central Bank (ECB), Draghi single-handedly saved the euro. Speaking English! Whatever it takes. Draghi is the greatest Italian on the international scene. And a friend of Merkel’s! Who better to bring home the swag from Brussels? Draghi will save us.

An ex-director of Goldman Sachs should have been anathema to M5S. The saviour of the euro should have been an abomination to the Eurosceptic League. Another unelected interloper should have scandalised any believer in parliamentary democracy. But no. Astonishingly, all the parties wanted to serve in Draghi’s government. PD, Italia Viva, the League, M5S and even Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Bitter enemies were suddenly delighted to work together.

The whole nation was euphoric. Only the right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party hung back. A parliament with no opposition, its leader Giorgia Meloni observed, smacked of North Korea. And she alone – hardly a politician one generally pays much attention to – pointed to the spuriousness of the pro-European rhetoric providing the smokescreen for this grand love-in.

[See also: The Covid reset]

For amid the general delirium another irony was emerging. Ever since the Recovery Fund was announced, virtue in Italian politics has become synonymous with a loudly declared, rigorously uncritical Europeanism. Facing defeat, Conte pleaded his love of Europe. M5S insisted on its conversion to the European ideal. Even Salvini had a change of heart, blinded by the 12 yellow stars. Presenting his government, Draghi trumped them all by claiming: “In our commitment to belong to the destiny of Europe we are even more Italian.” This at exactly the time when Ursula von der Leyen’s vaccine debacle was becoming hard to deny and regional governors in Italy were begging for the freedom to purchase vaccines outside the European scheme.

Will Draghi deliver? Certainly he will make sure the Recovery Fund arrives. But the idea that the crazy coalition backing him might pass the radical reforms he has announced (to the justice system, the tax system, the health system and the public administration) is a pipe dream. No sooner was he sworn into office than the third Covid wave presented itself, courtesy of the “variante inglese”. So the first thing Draghi was obliged to do was to send us back into lockdown, resorting at once to Conte’s favourite legislative tool, the prime ministerial decree. In Milan, soldiers with machine guns preside over an empty Piazza Duomo. My pub owner tells me he is ruined. Vaccines are in short supply.

Among so much that is depressingly familiar, we must be thankful for one huge change. Draghi, the banker, doesn’t appear on talk shows, doesn’t do social media and clearly has no appetite for addressing the nation. The press, who adored the grandstanding Conte, is in rapture over this manifestation of maturity, but continues to loathe Renzi, who will never be forgiven for having been proved right. Conte, who was never a member of M5S, promptly accepted the invitation to become its leader, while the leader of PD resigned in a sulk. On 8 March, Giorno delle Donne, Italy’s Covid death toll passed 100,000.

This article appears in the 24 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Spring special