The traditional political parties and the mainstream media in Italy often label their enemies and opponents as “populists” or “extremists”, pointing out their lack of competence, experience and credibility.
And, in a way, they are right. The main anti-establishment force, the Five Star Movement, for example, has been extremely clever at making the most of the popular anger against the old political system. But on the other hand, in Rome and in some other local governments, the Five Star boys and girls are proving to be dramatically incompetent. If your job is to scream, being a total amateur is an asset: but once you have been voted in to make decisions, it turns out to be a liability.
The Five Star Movement’s real intentions are unpredictable.
Nevertheless, if I may offer you a different point of view, a different angle, the best unconscious allies of the so-called “populists” are the establishment forces themselves. The Italian elites (starting with the old parties) should be questioned about why they have failed so spectacularly – and for decades – against the real Italian political and economic cancers: high taxes, high public spending, and the third-largest sovereign debt in the world. Answering that question is much more difficult than criticising “populists”.
Look at the big picture. Even in Italy, media and political elites (the same bigwigs who haven’t understood Brexit and Trump) suffer from a sort of detachment from reality. Last year, in December, even the Italian electors voted to smash the establishment and the status quo. On Renzi’s side (at the time, he was Prime Minister) you could find public and private television channels, major papers and mainstream media, big corporations, vested interests. In spite of this huge support and of constant scare tactics, Renzi’s proposal was literally wiped out.
The real point that the establishment fails to consider is an immense middle-class (and lower middle-class) whose living standards have been stagnating for years. They may have kept their jobs: but, in spite of that, they feel poorer and less secure. What is more, they have been kept out of the official agenda, of the public conversation: their fears and worries have been rejected and brushed aside for years.
So, at night, angry as they are, turning on their TVs, they are forced to watch the political class (and so-called experts) talking over electoral laws and constitutional details. That’ s why, when they are allowed to vote (not so often, in Italy), every election becomes the instrument of their revenge.
Nevertheless, if I may offer you a different point of view, a different angle, the best unconscious allies of the so-called “populists” are the establishment forces themselves.
Renzi made a giant mistake. When he took over, in 2014, he looked like a fresh guy, a disruptor of the old political schemes. And he was lucky enough to enjoy three “magic” mega-trends: the QE from the ECB, a 50 per cent crash in oil prices, and a devaluation of the Euro. Instead of making the most of them to boost the economy, and instead of focusing on a shock tax cut, a shock spending cut, and a shock sovereign debt cut with a proper privatisation plan, he decided to waste three years on the institutional architecture (transforming the Senate, etc). Last December, the electors had their final say on this political choice.
For years, similar mistakes have been made by traditional Centre-Right governments and by technical “juntas” (Mr Monti’s cabinet, for example). Every party, every coalition, every leader may have had reasons and explanations (the Italian political environment is never easy to live in) and they could sincerely argue that they have done their best. Nevertheless, no one has been able to cut taxes, public spending and sovereign debt.
Sooner or later (perhaps, after the next general election, scheduled next year, in spring), Italy will have to come to terms with reality, and it will be no picnic, whoever wins. As I wrote before, the third-largest sovereign debt in the world, more than 2,200 billion euros; every year, we must issue bonds for at least 400 billion euros; every year we spend 70 billion euros in interest; and, should the interest rates rise, the bill would become even more expensive.
Add that some major banks are on the verge of crisis, in a stagnating economic environment, and that these banks have a huge portfolio of sovereign debt: it’s not difficult to put two and two together and understand that an eventual crisis would naturally become a “systemic threat”. So, all of the existing political forces are at a crossroads.
The traditional Centre-Left (Gentiloni’s cabinet, and Renzi as the current leader of the Democratic Party) is losing ground. The Five Star Movement’s real intentions are unpredictable. So, another interesting question on the carpet is the future of the Italian Centre-Right, in this tripolar political system. We, as Direzione Italia (a pro-market “start-up” in the Italian Centre-Right) call for a clear reforming platform starting from the economy and for primary elections to trigger a vibrant competition of ideas and solutions.
We should learn from the Brexit experience. Of course, we cannot afford a sort of leap in the dark, in Italy. Our country is not in the same position as the United Kingdom, unfortunately: we are not the fourth military global power, we are not the fifth economy in the world, and we are overwhelmed by our sovereign debt, so we have to pay serious attention.
But the time has come to outline different scenarios, to have a coping strategy. No one can honestly take for granted that what has not worked so far will be working in the future.
And (that should be the main “British lesson” to learn, in my opinion) we should offer a constructive proposal to this mass of disappointed and disaffected electors. Instead of judging them, we should offer them something better. Both traditional forces and anti-establishment movements should use these months before the official kick-off of the electoral campaign to find something new in order to channel all this social anger.
A great part of the Italian electorate is looking forward to listening not only to a criticism of the EU, but also to a positive and constructive platform.
As far as I’m concerned, the Brexit negotiations could provide an opportunity: Italy should be part of an alliance to trigger a serious renegotiation process also in Continental Europe, helping reforming forces to work together against the European existing status quo, and against the perspective of a “Franco-German” (or Germanofrench) superstate, designed in Berlin-Paris-Brussels, and then imposed to all of the others, from Finland to Portugal.
A great part of the Italian electorate is looking forward to listening not only to a criticism of the EU, but also to a positive and constructive platform. It would be essential that rational and reforming movements and personalities should promote this kind of public conversation. And a consequent political challenge.