Don’t call them populists

Italy
Elections
Far-Right
New Interior Minister and League leader Matteo Salvini with the leader of the M5S, Italy's Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio, at the Quirinal palace in Rome, Italy, June 1, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile
New Interior Minister and League leader Matteo Salvini with the leader of the M5S, Italy's Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio, at the Quirinal palace in Rome, Italy, June 1, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Tony Gentile

Pundits have termed the new Italian government populist, anti-establishment, nationalist. All these labels are somewhat useful, but they hide another key fact: this government marks a drastic shift to the right.

Theirs is likely to become the most rightwing government Italy has seen in decades

The Five Star Movement (M5S, who gained some 32 per cent of the vote in the 4 March election) and the far-right League (formerly campaigning as Northern League, 17 per cent) have formed a government coalition with a hard line on immigration, tax reform and LGBTIQ rights.

The two parties formed a government coalition in May. They agreed on a ‘Contract for the Government of Change’ detailing their policy objectives, and to give the Prime Minister role to law professor Giuseppe Conte, who is not a member of either party.

But on 27 May, Italian President Sergio Mattarella sent the country into a widely-covered political crisis (the one you have probably read about), after he vetoed the coalition’s choice for Finance Minister, eurosceptic Paolo Savona. He asked IMF economist Carlo Cottarelli to form a provisional technical government instead.

After a few days’ standoff, the M5S-League coalition made another bid to govern, and was sworn into power on 1 June, with Conte as PM and law professor Giovanni Tria as Finance Minister instead of Savona – who, despite his euroscepticism and Mattarella’s earlier veto, has now been made Minister for EU Policies. Tria is thought to be close to the League’s economic stance, but favours reform rather than departure from the Euro.

Theirs is likely to become the most rightwing government Italy has seen in decades.

Judge their policies

The Contract for Government includes plans to overhaul the Italian tax system in a way that would disproportionately benefit the rich. The current Italian system is complicated, but progressive, while M5S and League want to introduce just one or two tax rates for all taxpayers.

League leader Matteo Salvini claims the reform would tackle tax evasion and boost the economy. But in practice, critics worry that the reform would offer Italy’s rich a huge tax discount. Highest earners currently pay 43 per cent income tax, and that figure could come down to as low as 20 or 25 per cent.

Current League leader Matteo Salvini at a rally in 2006.
Current League leader Matteo Salvini at a rally in 2006. His shirt bears the name and flag of ‘Padania’, the proposed state of an independent Northern Italy, previously the flagship policy of the League. Photo: Severino Damiolini, public domain

‘The reform would lead to moderate savings for the middle class in comparison to the highest earners, who would swallow up half of the money saved,’ University of Modena Finance Professor Massimo Bandini wrote in an article. ‘And the costs are high,’ he added – hinting that the reform could starve Italian public services, unless the government finds that money elsewhere.

The new government’s views on immigration are possibly even more extreme. In the lead-up to the 4 March election, new Interior Minister Salvini called Islam a ‘threat’, waged war on ‘illegal’ immigrants and Roma settlements, and on one occasion was filmed saying ‘we need mass cleansing here in Italy... street by street, district by district, square by square, with forceful methods, if necessary.’

The Contract for Government proposes to build more centres to keep immigrants in administrative detention; request that all mosques and other religious centres register with the state; demand that the EU resettles asylum seekers in other countries through a quota system; and ‘effective policies’ to deport some 500,000 ‘illegal’ immigrants and to curb arrivals.

‘We need mass cleansing here in Italy... street by street, district by district, square by square, with forceful methods, if necessary’ – League leader Salvini filmed earlier this year

The new Family and Disability Minister is yet another example. He is League politician Lorenzo Fontana, who has extreme views on abortions, which he says he will try to discourage, and gay and LGBTIQ rights.

‘I’m Catholic, I don’t hide it,’ he told Il Corriere della Sera newspaper in an interview. ‘Therefore, I believe and say families are natural families, in which a child has a mother and a father.’ Salvini has defended him from media criticism saying that a review of LGBTIQ rights and abortion law is not in the Contract for Government, and therefore ‘not a priority’. Fontana says he is simply being attacked because he is a Catholic.

The new government also features a Health Minister (M5S’s Giulia Grillo) who opposed a bill that made some vaccines mandatory for schoolchildren.

Brace for worse to come

While there is no doubt that the League has very conservative and far right views on many issues, the M5S isn’t easy to label rightwing. It is a mixed bag that has often left commentators puzzled; for example, it’s virtually impossible to understand what the party’s stance on the Euro really is.

On the one hand, M5S leaders have at times showed disregard for conventional democratic processes and constitutional niceties like the separation of powers.

When President Mattarella vetoed their choice for Finance Minister, leader Luigi di Maio vowed to impeach him, and called for national organizing in Rome, reminiscent for many Italians of Mussolini’s March on Rome. (Salvini did the same. Di Maio has since apologized.) When he mentioned the Italian State in a rally on 2 June and supporters booed, Di Maio asked them to stop, saying: ‘From today on, we are the State.’

On the other hand, the M5S has progressive and redistributive social ideas. It has had liberal ideas about LGBTIQ rights and mixed couples, and proposes introducing a universal basic income scheme that looks at odds with offering a tax discount for the rich.

In the negotiating process to form a coalition with the League, the M5S gave up much: the Families Minister and Interior Minister are both League politicians; the ‘flat tax’ and the hard line against immigration are League ideas.

Ultimately, how reactionary this government is will depend on how the M5S can hold its ground on certain issues and what Finance Minister Tria decides to prioritize. The Contract for Government proposes some lavish spending, and there might not be enough resources to deport half a million people, cut taxes for everyone, set up a basic income scheme and lower retirement age.

How reactionary this government is will depend on how the M5S can hold its ground on certain issues and what Finance Minister Tria decides to prioritize

But the League in an ideal position now. As the minor party in the only government coalition the country could produce in almost three months of deadlock, it can hold the government at ransom over key issues – and blame the M5S, the bigger party in the coalition, for any shortcomings.

Salvini showed he is skilled at doing that. During the late May political standoff, he blamed the EU, the President, the ‘establishment’ and the financial markets for the woes of the country. He also repeatedly called for new elections.

His approval ratings surged. By some polls, the League even overtook the M5S among voters – with 28 per cent to 27. The odds might be stacked in their favour.

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