Field guide to Italian Politics
Behind the scenes of a never-ending crisis
After the disastrous year of a global pandemic and the worst recession in our lifetime and despite the need for good statesmen to take the lead, the Italian political landscape is in turmoil and facing a new political crisis yet again.
In the land of Macchiavelli's elaborate masterpiece "The Prince", politics has always been a messy thing. From the beginning of our young Republican history, we used to switch governments more often than a pair of trousers at the change of season. From the infamous Tambroni's Cabinet, which lasted only four months in 1960, to the recent fallen coalition, lasted barely a year, Italy changed 7 different governments only in the arc of the last 10 years. Is not a wonder that trying to make sense of the Italian political landscape seems like a daunting task, if not outright impossible, for foreign observers. Don't worry, though, you're not alone! In fact, the whole situation is completely irritating and confusing even for the local population, too.
Watching our domestic policies unfolding is like watching a real-time episode of House of Cards, with the same level of blood and greed, and the only exception that is not the main character to be accused of misconducts, but the entire cast of supporting actors. Italy is well known for the never-ending scandals and corruption that endemically involve every politician.
At the beginning of a new year, and at the dawn of a fresh new crisis that could crush the country in the worst moment possible, I'll try to recap the previous episodes, in case you missed it.
A Strange Coalition
To unravel the madness of Italian politics we have to jump back to last year.
August 2019. Summer is in full swing in Italy. All businesses are closed and people are flocking towards the coast, for the long-coveted holidays of "ferragosto". Even the Parliament is closed, and Deputies and Senators are all far away spending holidays in some fancy islands in the ocean.
But not everybody is enjoying the sun. Matteo Salvini, the ambitious leader of "the League", a far-right party that won big in the latest elections, is growing dissatisfied by the continued downplays and compromises he has to deal with his coalition counterpart, the 5 Stars Movement (5SM), a populistic party that had been chosen as a partner in crime for the formation of the ruling government. In fact, in their only one year of activity, each of the two parties contended their space and prestige in the political arena with endless quarreling and disagreements on every major issue, crippling any serious political action, and League's supporters are secretly whispering their malcontent for the situation to their leader Salvini.
Strong of record support in the polls, and taking advantage of the relaxed summery atmosphere, Matteo Salvini decided, a random Sunday of August, that this was the right time to finally put a halt to the coalition and continue his political adventure solo.
Was the effect of sunstroke, or delirium of omnipotence? -we'll never know- but from the Papeete Beach where he was spending his holidays, a tanned Salvini in swimsuit and mojito in hand, decided it was a good idea to call for fresh elections and assume "full powers" over the country, in a surprising wannabe dictator move, and one of the most ridiculous attempts to seize power in political memory.
The opposing parties responded to this provocation by quickly coming back from holidays and organize a strategy to fight Salvini's plans and try to save democracy from falling into the hands of the far-right leader.
One of the most tactical politicians in the arena, saw the opportunity to impeach Salvini and strike a new pact with the populistic 5Stars Movement -his sworn enemies- to continue the legislature with the support now of HIS party, the left-wing Democratic Party, which, at that time, was the largest opposition. The only viable solution to avoid an autocratic meltdown in the middle of august.
In one surprising plot-twist, the coalized parties forced Salvini to step down from power and a new atypical collaboration emerged between the liberal, pro-EU, left-leaning Democratic Party and the populistic Euroskeptic and chaotic 5Stars Movement. Oil and water, basically.
Giuseppe Conte, a former law professor, and relatively unknown figure, was called to be the Prime Minister of this second mandate, to guarantee balance and neutrality among the fighting parties.
When it comes to politics, nothing is true in Italy. Is an endless poker game, with expert players in Parliament.
So, in one single magic trick, and without any election, Italy switched overnight to opposing sides: from a right-wing government, it turned into a progressive left-aligned one, under the same leading figure of Giuseppe Conte, as if nothing ever happened.
The insane ability of our politicians to renegate any ideal and switch team at any given opportunity is so well known that in Italy we have even coined a term for it, “transformism”, and is now a recurrent and established tradition in our Parliament.
February 2020. A year later. A new virus is found in Wuhan and before is possible to stop it, it quickly spread to the rest of the world and the rest is history.
There was happiness in the air, at that time: Diodato was winning the annual edition of Sanremo Music Festival with a splendid live performance, and from North to South, everyone was talking only about it. The atmosphere was filled with music and glamour, as always happens in Italy, and nobody had the slightest idea of the maverick that was soon going to wreak havoc in the country.
Italy, in fact, for a series of unfortunate events, became one of the first designated victim of the new Corona virus that run rampant in Europe.
After the first wave subsided with summer, it was already clear the magnitude of the disaster that the passage of the virus left behind. In the first months of spring, the death toll skyrocketed to over 30.000 and the economy plummeted to the worst levels since the 2008 crisis, with a health system close to collapse in the northern regions.
This time, though, Europe responded differently, by enabling a wide recovery fund and showing an unprecedented act of solidarity in the global challenge. It was the so-called Next Generation EU, an ambitious plan that Ursula von der Leyen presented to the European Commission and it was the safe-net that Italy, and other European countries, desperately needed to survive. But not everyone in Europe was on board for this plan.
Clash of Titans
The night of 21 July must have felt the longest in their whole career for the representative of EU’s 27 Countries coming to Bruxelles to discuss the details of the new recovery plan. They couldn’t imagine that the negotiation could become so long and heated.
All the disparities of Europe became suddenly visible when the negotiations touched the various and different interests of each country, as two opposing sides emerged from the discussion: the Northern “frugals”, represented by Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte, firmly interested in keeping a tight budget, and the Southern “happy spenders”, spearheaded by Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, looking for opportunities to ease their debt and promote economic growth. At stake, there was a prize of trillions of euros and the future of the European Project, and nobody seemed interested to concede on their respective sides.
The debate became emblematic of the contrasting visions and philosophies that had always stained the European discussion and poisoned the sense of community in the Continent
For five days EU leaders struggled to find a compromise, in one of the longest negotiations ever happened at Bruxelles. We’ll never know what really happened behind closed doors, but I like to imagine something along the line of Run the Jewels’s epic Music Video, although I concede that the negotiations may have lacked the brilliant flow of the song.
Finally at 5am in the morning, after a long night of endless battling, a deal is reached. When Conte come back to Italy, is acclaimed as the winner of the negotiations, striking a definitive home run with a big slice of the delicious European cake. Over 200 billions in loans and debt concessions would help Italy to recover from the lasting crisis and finally heal the wounds of its flawed economy.
A New Marshall Plan, as everyone already called it, the biggest investment ever granted to the country, and possibly an opportunity for a new boom, similarly to what happened in the Continent after the Second World War.
The talks in Bruxelles are a success story for Italy, a glimpse of hope in the aftermath of a deadly pandemic, but also the beginning of new problems for Conte and his cabinet.
How to spend this money?
Now the coalition is shaking again and the future of the country has never been more uncertain. Such a big sum of money is an incredible chance to relaunch the economy, but also the last window of opportunity. A hit or miss with no coming back. The last concession that Europe would accord to us and a mismanagement could seal our fate forever. Is no surprise that such a delicate issue can become an easy target for critiques from all sides of the political spectrum, waiting only for a chance to chip in.
The Jackpot has never been bigger, and everyone is looking to put their hands on it. An open battle has opened in the Parliament. A free for all deathmatch with no winner in sight. Is open crisis.
“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger, but calculating risk and acting decisively.” — Niccolò Macchiavelli
In the art of politics, every slight chance can be decisive, and Matteo Renzi is a master artist in leveraging this principle. As he defeated a far-right ascent to power a year before, now he saw the right time to put his weight on the decision-making process behind the new Recovery Plan.
In an open letter to the national newspaper “La Repubblica”, Renzi publicly criticize the Prime Minister’s plan and management of the European budget, threatening to put an end to the coalition if his demands were not met.
Talks and negotiations are still going on, but no compromise between the political forces has been found and the destiny of the government remains uncertain.
To make the matter worse, this year will also mark the crucial election of the next President of the Republic, the highest office, therefore decisive to guaranteee the future of the country in the next 7 years. All while a pandemic is raging rampant and the economy is in free fall.
In the background, the friction and conflicts between the two main parties, Democratic Party and 5S Movement, who have forced an unnatural alliance for power but are secretly despising each other and keep fighting to grab more space inside the coalition. While on the other side of the political arena a fascist opposition headed by Salvini is still waiting eagerly for any misstep to call for elections and rise to power again with poll numbers and support on their side.
Is only the beginning of a new year and the situation is already getting extremely heated. Impossible to know what will happen next, but one thing is sure: is going to be a hell of a rollercoaster! Good luck Italy. Happy 2021.