A Populist Debacle In Italy

What has happened in Italy to the surprise, better still, the incredulity of Italians and foreign observers alike, is that sanity finally prevailed in a nation that had been snookered by a politician who had broken long-standing constitutional rules by pushing anti-immigrant actions and far right populist policies.

At the end of the day, Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, the majority party, went too far in trying to grab power and was hoisted by his own petard. His maneuvers had brought down the government of premier Antonio Conte in pursuit of a strategy aimed at forcing President Mattarella to call for new elections.

In Salvini’s mind, new elections would have given his party a large enough majority to hand him the next premiership. The strategy of the populist firebrand came crashing down starting on the day when his partners in ruling Italy, the Five Star movement, began to disengage from him in mid-July when they voted in for Ursula von der Leyen to be president of the new European Commission.

Salvini’s flamboyant leadership had long defied the Commission and the European Union’s conduct on a balanced projection. By taking a pro-European and anti-sovereignty stance, the Five Stars signaled that they were ready to deal with the opposition Democratic Party. The rapidly developing entente brought down Salvini’s house, gave impetus to the president’s devices to bring about a new government coalition and found a public hero in Antonio Conte, a moderate law professor who went from being regarded as a puppet of the former partners to becoming the savior of the Italian republic. Not only that, the most unexpected blessing came from across the Atlantic when President Trump called Conte “a very talented man who will hopefully remain Prime Minister.” All this coming from a man whom Salvini had approached, even groveling, for support.

In sum, it was a big surprise for the anti-Trump coalition in the U.S. to find out that Donald Trump had abandoned a populist hard right hothead in favor of a European-minded and mild-mannered lawyer who had found the guts to denounce Salvini in parliament for his underground undertakings with Putin’s machine.

In short, the miracle that happened in Rome is that the Five Stars, and most importantly its leader Luigi Di Maio, realized that it was better for them to find an accord with the leftist Democratic Party than risk a snap election that would certainly cause them to lose a large number of seats. The President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella cut to the chase and charged Conte with forming a new government.

Immediately after, negotiations started between the Five Stars and the Democratic Party leaders to cobble together a cabinet and the crucial legislation that is urgently needed to avert a massive sales tax hike that would push the country into a recession. The financial measures must be submitted to the European Commission by mid-October. The complex nature of Italy’s financial crisis, compounded by a huge deficit, has not prevented national and international investors from cheering the surprise agreement of the last few days. And yet, among the hurdles to be overcome is the modus operandi of the Five Stars party that puts major decisions up to an online vote by its members.

The web platform on which the vote is conducted is named after the Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau. It is an Italian invention that came into being as an instrument of raw politics for the Five Stars infighting with the pretense of enabling direct democracy. In fact, it is nothing but a demagogic fiction, engineered by one of the founders of the Five Stars. Of course, Rousseau has very little to do with this fiction. With his social contract, he had proposed the re-founding of society on the basis of an equity pact in which the people represented a sovereign body, as the sole holder of legislative power and its own subject. The absurdity of the new political version is to give power to a few thousand activists online in a way that the concocted scheme could influence the fate of a nation. In time, the scheme has become an instrument to involve the membership in the parliamentary process but in reality to ratify the interests of its leaders.

The incongruity of such a process reminds us of the absurdity of the Rousseau saying: “We have to force man to be free.” The president of the republic commented wisely: “I only take into account what the parliamentary groups state.” In sum, Italy has emerged from a state of absurdity and chaos, but the new coalition has a long way to go. The loser, Matteo Salvini, is not giving up: he is calling for a national strike on Oct. 19.

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