Failing Italy and Salvini

- Francesco Sisci

A systemic crisis is unfolding in Italy as rightist rising political star Salvini presses for an early vote

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Matteo Salvini (LaPresse)

On August 14, Wall Street tanked by 3%, about 800 points, causing the day after a slide in the Asian and European markets. In both, the two continental economic locomotives, China and Germany, are not faring well. China’s growth is officially the lowest since 1992 and Germany may be heading toward recession.

In this extremely fragile international condition, Italy is mired in a deep systemic crisis, indicating that the very structure of the Italian constitution is no longer working.

The most recent and disruptive aspect of the crisis is about an unprecedented break between the intentions of the leaders of the different parties and their elected deputies.

In the past few days, the leader of the ruling right-wing Lega, Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini, announced he wanted an early vote to “cash in” the widening popular support for his anti-immigration stand. Salvini wanted to break the alliance with the eccentric, left-wing-ish 5 Star Movement (M5s), which had some 34% of the vote in 2018 parliamentary elections, but whose support is rapidly declining.

The Lega-M5s government has been mostly ineffective and has plunged the country into a situation of government chaos, beyond the usual disarray of Italian politics. This was because of the highly divergent agendas in the coalition and the great inexperience of many ministers.

Opinion polls claim M5s could get now less than 15%, but Lega could gain as much as 40%, thus securing an absolute majority in a future parliament, according to the present electoral law. Salvini now has 17% of the seats.

Leaders of center-left Democratic Party (PD) and of center-right Forza Italia (FI) both of the opposition, also agreed to an early vote to settle the deep fissures vexing the present government since its early days just a year ago.

They believe that Lega should prove its mettle in government, and thus Italians will decide if it can continue or it should be voted out at the next elections. They believe that if Lega is denied elections now, its support will only increase in the next few months with even bigger dangers for stability in Italy.

In theory, their support plus Lega would suffice to call an early election.

Yet contrary to some of their leaders, the majority of the members of parliament do not want to go back to the ballots, as possibly 70% of them would not be reelected. These are mainly from M5s—over 2/3 of them would not be in the future parliament, according to opinion polls. These MPs were mostly without jobs before the election and could become unemployed. For most of them, being an MP is the best gig they ever had—although this attachment to their present position clearly contradicts years of M5s sloganeering against “political professionals.”

Moreover, parliamentarians from PD and from FI are against an early vote. PD’s new electoral lists would be chosen by new party chief Nicola Zingaretti, while present MPs were selected by ex-party chief and former premier Matteo Renzi. The fate FI’s MPs is even murkier as its leader, ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi, 83, is growing highly unpredictable and nobody knows what he would do in case of a ballot.

Renzi apparently has sensed the MPs’ mood and is riding it. He may feel that by pushing against elections and for a large new coalition government, pooling together M5s plus PD and FI, he could regain control of the PD or start his own party by draining the PD.

Here is the paradox, unprecedented in Italian recent history. The MPs are privateering their position, against their leaders elected by the party, not only the MPs. This appears against the constitutional practice and thus creates an explosive precedent. In the future, elected MPs could not simply refuse to respond to their party, but could hijack their parties against the wishes of their common members. Moreover, who represents the party, the elected MPs, or the wider assembly electing the secretary? It is not clear how the parliament and subsequently the government could work with this.

This de facto constitutional crisis comes weeks after a huge scandal rocked the Supreme Council of Magistrates (CSM, the authority ruling Italy’s independent judiciary). Here a group of important judges were found exchanging favors for promotions and preferable sentencing, thus de facto exposing a massive corruption ring at the top of the Italian judiciary. This is shaking trust in the constitutional framework for the self rule of the judiciary.

The CSM scandal apparently is not an episode that can be easily fixed. It is proof that the judicial system is no longer able to function properly. The fact that MPs today are an independent and autonomous power means that Parliament as it is no longer works either.

Then all of the top institutions — the Parliament, the Judiciary — in Italy are wobbling as systems. This indicates that the constitution itself, encasing the basic norms for them, is no longer functioning. The Italian constitution was conceived at the end of the fascist regime and in the shade of the Cold War to find a delicate balance between two main forces: the pro-USA Christian Democrats (DC) and the pro-USSR communists (PCI). With the end of the Cold War, that delicate balance first began to fall apart and now appears to have almost completely dissolved.

Furthermore, Italy pours every year over €50 billions of capitals in investments abroad and about two million young people, some of the best of the country, went to work overseas. It’s largest financial and human capital drain of developed countries, indicating the end of the social contract framed in the present constitution.

Italy needs a new Constitution for the present times, as also Giorgio Vittadini, leader of influential Catholic organization Comunione e Liberazione, recently argued.

Against this backdrop moves an extremely complicated theater of conspiracy theories and shadow fights.

Lega leader Matteo Salvini may want elections to prevent possible persecution for his alleged unclear dealings with Russia. Yet also for this reason he may not want to resign as Minister of the Interior, because he would be much weaker in the face of inquiries and also because today he is de facto campaigning while all his transfers are being paid by his Ministry. The Lega is in fact cash strapped due to another scandal about the unclear accounting for 49 million euros of public campaign funds. This money has disappeared, it is not accounted for, Lega can’t have other public money, and it is obliged to reimburse the state.

Renzi and his MPs furthermore claim that going to the polls early would lead to a financial disaster, as a proper budget law could not be approved and the Value Added Tax (VAT) would automatically increase to 25%, freezing the Italian economy. Besides, many MPs in the past few days are pushing for reforming the number of MPs, curtailing their total by approximately 1/3. The reform had been mothballed in the past months.

These however, to the supporters of early elections, all seem weak excuses to push off the vote. A stronger reason to avoid the vote is preventing the victory of Salvini and his rightist, anti-immigrant agenda. These forces believe that inquiries into Salvini’s Russian dealings could take care of him. But perhaps these inquiries, if seen as strongly politically driven, could turn Salvini into a martyr, boost his popularity, and give him 60% of the votes, not just the present 40%. Moreover, to avoid Salvini’s arrival to full power, is it right to thwart democracy by pushing off a vote?

The reality is that the government is finished, the present parliament also, and the Italian so-called second republic has a stone around its neck.

All of this implies that the constitution should be modified profoundly, simple adjustments will not be enough. But concretely, it is not clear how to arrive to this.

As we said, the present constitution was borne out of two huge shocks, World War II and the Cold War, when the fascist state had collapsed. Today there has been no war or collapse of the country, and the second cold war, which looms with China, is still not really in full motion. Nor is it clear whether in the end it will really happen and, in that event, how it will be.

Then, in the absence of an external or internal shock, the degeneration of the system could go on for months or even years.

In this, Salvini is apparently the fuse, however unpleasant he may be. His bid for elections could change many things. On the other hand, he has an advantage in being pushed to the opposition. He would have no responsibility in the next budget law, scheduled for the fall. This could well increase taxes and cut Italian extensive welfare state. Moreover, he would become the hero against the petty politicking of his enemies. He could well become the man of the providence for many Italians.

For most of his present enemies, without a political future, the stakes are pretty basic: to pocket a little more salary in the coming months.

Still he may feel cornered by his many contradictory needs, want to remain Minister of Interior, and be able to campaign for future elections. Besides, if scandals over Russia were to uncover Salvini’s unsavory dealings, he may be finished.

To get out of the corner, he should build strong international relations at least with the three traditional pillars of Italian foreign policy. He would need to bolster his ties with the US (he has a little); build a relationship with the EU Commission (where he has no friends); and recover a dialogue with the Catholic Church (which largely loathes him for his hate speech), without which Italy can’t be realistically governed. Without all of this, he risks being held hostage by a thousand palace games while his support outside of the parliament increases but is not sufficient. This conundrum then further harms the state.

It is not clear if and what will happen with Salvini and his enemies, but it is clear that the world does not wait for Italy and its palace games. Italy is in no way ready to face the looming international storm, with a Parliament that is a zombie, not alive and not dead. It’s perhaps an especially difficult situation for the country in the present climate.