It looks, for now, more than 11 weeks after the inconclusive general election, as though Italy is about to have a new government. On Friday, 18 May, the Movimento 5 Stelle and the Lega Nord published the text of a coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, and overwhelmingly approved by the members of both parties. They also came up with a suggestion for a prime minister: Giuseppe Conte, a previously obscure, M5S-supporting law professor at Florence University. He isn’t an MP but that isn’t a problem: according to the Italian constitution, the leader of the executive isn’t necessarily drawn from the legislature, but is appointed by the president of the Republic. In theory, it could be anyone. Both Carlo Azeglio Ciampi (1993-94) and Matteo Renzi (2014-16) were prime minister without ever being elected to Parliament; Mario Monti (2011-13) was made a senator for life shortly before taking over from Berlusconi.
Di Maio and Salvini went, in turn, to see President Sergio Mattarella at the Quirinal Palace on the evening of Monday, 21 May. The prime minister in waiting, it was expected, would be summoned shortly afterwards. He would later name his cabinet, and there would then be a vote of confidence in Parliament, where the M5S and the Lega between them command a majority in both houses: 352 of 630 seats in the Chamber of Deputies; 170 of 315 seats in the Senate. But Mattarella said he needed more time to think things over, offering a temporary reprieve both to the Eurocrats in Brussels who look with alarm at the prospect of a populist government in the Eurozone’s third largest economy, and to the undocumented migrants in Italian cities who are threatened with detention and deportation.
Very few people had heard of Conte before his name was put forward as a potential premier.[*] Journalists went off to see what they could find out about him. On his CV, he said that he’d attended New York University. The New York Times approached NYU: he’d never been enrolled there, the university said. Other institutions he listed – the Sorbonne, the University of Malta – also said they could find no mention of any Giuseppe Conte in their records. The Internationales Kulturinstitut in Vienna said it didn’t have a law department; it taught only German. Girton College, Cambridge declined to comment when approached by La Repubblica. For a day or two, a large question mark hovered over Conte. People in the M5S suggested that perhaps Di Maio should be prime minister after all. Salvini said that if that happened, he’d tear up the coalition agreement and demand an immediate return to the polls.
The M5S rallied behind Conte. The story that he’d never been at NYU was dismissed as ‘fake news’: the university had given him a library card and he’d used the law library there for six consecutive summers. Alessandro di Battista, an MP for the M5S since 2013, wrote on Facebook that the president of the Republic cannot oppose the will of the people. His father, Vittorio di Battista, a one-time far right city councillor in Rome, commented that if the people were pissed off, they’d storm the Quirinal as if it were the Bastille. For years, both the M5S and the Lega have been railing – with some justification – against government by unelected technocrats (Monti, Renzi). But it now seems that unelected technocrats are just fine – are, in fact, the pinnacle of democracy, representatives of a government elected by the sovereign people – as long as they’re nominated by the M5S and the Lega.
On the morning of Wednesday, 23 May, Mattarella phoned Di Maio and Salvini to ask if they still wanted Conte to be prime minister. They said they did. That evening Conte was summoned to the Quirinal to ‘persuade’ the president that he was up to the job. Nearly two hours later – the conversation never usually lasts that long – he emerged, to announce that he had been charged with forming a government. It will include both Salvini (probably as interior minister) and Di Maio (probably as labour minister), but the PM is unlikely to be the only unelected technocrat. One contender for finance minister is Paolo Savona, a Eurosceptic academic economist – he has described the single currency as a ‘noose’ – who served as the trade and industry minister in Ciampi’s technocratic administration 25 years ago. His appointment would burnish the new government’s anti-Europe credentials – and for the rest of the EU he is at least a known quantity – but it would do little to convince anyone that they were witnessing the dawn of a new era in Italian politics, despite Conte’s assertion that his government will be a government of change, and Di Maio’s excited claims about ‘the birth of the Third Republic’.
Assuming Conte is able to assemble a cabinet in time, the confidence vote will be some time next week. And assuming that passes, the new government will, in theory, start to implement the programme set out in the coalition agreement. The 58-page document is expansive on the need to renew the public water system, reform the Common Agricultural Policy, sustain the green economy, create an infrastructure investment bank, resolve conflicts of interest in public life, make the most of Italy’s cultural heritage, reduce the debt and deficit through economic growth, pursue a defence policy based on technological improvements, introduce a minimum wage and minimum hours at work, fight corruption, create a disability ministry, reform the pension system, introduce a version of universal basic income for the unemployed, reduce the number of MPs and senators by more than a third, improve hospitals, schools, universities and public transport, give more money to the police and improve working conditions for firefighters, tackle the problems of cyberbullying and gambling addiction, promote tourism, encourage people to play more sport, and demand the EU be more accountable to its citizens – all more or less worthy goals, and among the reasons so many people on the left, disillusioned with the Partito Democratico’s neoliberalism, voted for the M5S.
More ominously, the coalition agreement sets out a foreign policy based on the national interest, remaining in Nato but improving relations with Russia, fighting terrorism and ‘refocusing attention on the Southern front’. The justice system will be made ‘swift and efficient’, with tougher sentencing, while increasing the rights of householders to defend themselves against intruders. As for immigration, the – truly monstrous – intention is to ‘repatriate’ the estimated 500,000 ‘irregular migrants’ currently in Italy within 18 months; to build detention centres across the country to incarcerate them while they’re waiting to be expelled; and to close down ‘radical Islamic associations’, including mosques and other places of worship. Nursery school places will be free for Italian children only. Virginia Raggi, the M5S mayor of Rome, has, to her credit, already objected to that. Plans to close down Roma camps, deport foreign squatters and impose more controls on foreign driving licences fall under the heading of ‘law and order’.
It’s unclear how any of this is going to be carried out, let alone paid for. The coalition document promises to ‘sterilise’ EU revenue-safeguarding requirements that lead to VAT and excise duty increases, cut taxes on petrol (how does that sit with the green economy?), and introduce a ‘flat’ income tax with two bands, of 15 and 20 per cent; the current top rate, for earnings over €75,000, is 43 per cent. A flat rate of income tax is deeply regressive – the bishops have spoken out against it – but apparently low-income households will be protected from any ‘disadvantages’, and a lot of red tape will be cut.
Bloomberg reported that ‘Italy might be forming Western Europe’s first populist government.’ The Washington Post qualified the headline slightly, calling it ‘Western Europe’s first fully populist government’. The Lega has been in government before, in coalition with Berlusconi in all four of his administrations (1994, 2001-5, 2005-6 and 2008-11), though as a junior partner. (Numerically, the Lega is the junior partner this time, too, but in just one of the many instances in which Salvini appears to have run rings round Di Maio, each party has undertaken ‘not to outvote the other in questions of fundamental importance to it’.) But to describe the M5S-Lega coalition as Italy’s first populist government, or even its first fully populist government, is to buy into the revisionist notion that Berlusconi himself somehow wasn’t a populist.
In any case, there are already signs that the populism is being tempered: Conte came out of his meeting with Mattarella saying he was ‘aware of the need to confirm Italy’s European and international position’, but that he would act as Italy’s ‘defence lawyer’ in Brussels. He knows he will have to walk a fine line between the many and varied interests he will be expected to represent: a line so fine that it may not, in fact, exist, given the fundamental incoherence of the coalition and its programme, not to mention of the M5S itself.
All of which leaves only one alleged enemy of the people vulnerable to this new government, and it isn’t the EU, or the mafia, or the out-of-touch elite, but immigrants. Even if they don’t manage to build any of the threatened detention centres, or to increase the deportation rate, the Lega and its allies will find ways to make the environment ever more hostile. Rhetoric can go a long way in that respect, and Salvini makes life worse for immigrants in Italy almost every time he opens his mouth.
Daniele Albertazzi, who teaches political science at Birmingham University, has suggested that the agreement between the M5S and the Lega isn’t really the basis for a governing relationship so much as a covert election manifesto. He thinks the government is likely to last less than two years, but even that may be optimistic. There could be another election within months. And since March the Lega has been gaining steadily in the polls.
[*] He is unrelated to the Chelsea FC manager, Antonio Conte, who was in charge at Juventus when it began its current unbroken streak of dominance over Italian football, and led the national team to a respectable quarter-final place in Euro 2016. There are many who think he might have been a better bet for prime minister than his mysterious namesake.