The Italian Job -- And Its Ironies

by Sidney Tarrow

On March 4th, Italy underwent one of its many “crises” — a term that is sometimes overused on the peninsula, but which seems to have been fitting this time. After over two decades of what political scientists called “The Second Republic,” Italian political life was turned upside-down.

First, the governing center-left PD crashed and burned, losing almost half of its votes and suffering the resignation of its unpopular leader, Matteo Renzi.

Second, coming from almost nowhere since its creation by a noted comic, Beppe Grillo, in 2009, a party called the “Five Star Movement” (M5S) captured a third of the electorate, emerging from the election as the largest single party. Under normal circumstances, this would have made it the logical first choice to form a government, but the M5S asserted throughout the campaign that it would refuse to coalesce with any of the other parties; at this writing, it has still not broken that pledge.

Third, since much of the campaign turned on the issue of undocumented immigrants — hundreds of thousands of whom landed on Italy’s shores over the last few years — a once-regional party, the Lega, which had represented northern interests, but now embraced a Trumpian denigration  of immigrants, came in third — well ahead of its ally, Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire businessman whose four terms as Prime Minister had shaped the Second Republic. The campaign was marked by violence of language and action, and the results were structured by a new and untested electoral system that Renzi had designed to keep his party in power. No wonder he resigned the morning after the PD’s defeat!

There is more than one irony in the outcome of the Italian election. First, Italy was one of the two EU members that had welcomed the immigrants who washed up on its shores in the wake of the wars in North Africa and the Middle East. Yet, the election was largely fought on the issue of immigration, with even the liberal PD, faced by attacks from the Lega, moving away from its humanitarian policies.

Second, the rise of the M5S to a primary position in the electorate was based on a heterodox populist platform that placed throwing the rascals out (no matter who the rascals were!) ahead of any coherent policy program. Though it has behaved more and more like a party, its militants continue to see it as a movement, but it is a movement with no clear political valence. The word “populism” springs to most journalists’ lips when describing M5S, but whether it is populism of the left or the right — or neither — remains to be seen. The party gained many votes from the left, from among young people disillusioned with the decay of the PD's progressive wing under Renzi.

Third, there was a colossal irony in the displacement of Berlusconi’s party by the Lega as the leading party of the center-right. For much of the Second Republic, the Lega Nord played second fiddle to the billionaire businessman, riding his coattails into government and gaining small change for its northern base in the bargaining that inevitably followed the formation of every government he led.

What had happened? Of course, the anti-immigrant wave gave the Lega the votes of the same kind of people who brought Donald Trump into the White House in 2016. But something else was at work —the law, and its effect on public opinion. During much of his reign as leader of the center-right, Berlusconi was hounded by magistrates trying to indict him on charges ranging from tax evasion, to bribery, to ordering the Milanese police to free a young Egyptian dancer when she was picked up for shoplifting. For years, he held the law at bay through a combination of legal maneuvering and political manipulation. But when the magistrates caught up with him, he was banned from holding public office for a number of years, a sentence that is still in force as he tried to pull the strings of his party from behind the curtain.

Few observers thought that Berlusconi would return to power but even fewer supposed that his party would fall into fourth place when he returned to the electoral lists. Of course, the issue of immigration gave the Lega a tool with which to attract part of his electorate, but it is not far-fetched to suppose that years of legal conflict took their toll on Berlusconi’s political magic. Italians — who famously scorn the niceties of the law — may have had enough of a businessman who used  public office to keep himself out of jail.

Are there lessons here for us? We have our own free-wheeling businessman/politician who is trying to use public office to protect himself from the law. And although the Mueller investigation may not get to the heart of the rot in the Trump campaign’s dealings with nefarious Russian election meddling, like the Italian voters who defected from the major parties on March, American voters next November may eventually have had enough as well. Stay tuned!