Henry Newman

Will the next Italian elections be a referendum on democracy?

Will the next Italian elections be a referendum on democracy?
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Is Italy descending into political chaos? Some may shrug their shoulders and say well, it is Italy. Yes, Italy has had messy politics before. But that doesn’t make the current row any less high stakes. We don’t yet know if the League backs the demands of the Five Star - and the small Brothers of Italy party - to impeach the President. If they do then there will be a majority in both houses. The Five Star and the League are also calling for fresh elections – but could a president dissolve parliament while facing impeachment demands? Meanwhile the President has put forward a new figure as Prime Minister, who seems almost designed to offend the parties who actually won the recent elections.

How did we get here? The recent elections produced a shock result. A majority of parliamentary seats in both houses were won by the Five Star Movement and the League. The Five Star are an anti-establishment grouping, literally founded by a comedian. The League were once a northern separatist party but have morphed into a national political force. In a sign of just how topsy-turvey Italian politics has become, League leader, Matteo Salvini, is now Senator for Calabria - part of the Italy from which the League were previously so keen to break away.

At a small dinner shortly before the recent poll, a senior minister in Paolo Gentiloni’s government told me of his confidence that the Democratic Party would do well. I was more sceptical. Just over a year ago, Matteo Renzi (the former leader of the Democratic Party) had failed spectacularly in a referendum on constitutional change. An anti-establishment mood was swelling in Italy. My Italian friends were to a degree apathetic about politics, but also deeply fed up with the status quo. Almost every young Italian I know has voted at least once for the Five Star Movement.

The election results saw the Five Star emerge as the strongest party, despite the fact that they took place under a complex new electoral law almost specifically designed to prevent the Five Star coming to power. The League, leapfrogged ahead of their running partners, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. It was a result that confirmed the trend that, right across the democratic world, politics are in flux.

The Five Star and League couldn’t agree which of them should be in charge. So they found a compromise candidate, Giuseppe Conte - a previously unknown law professor who reportedly had 'massaged' aspects of his CV. Yet yesterday evening, Conte returned the mandate to the President of the Republic, admitting he couldn’t form a Government. The President later confirmed the rumours that he had refused to appoint the Eurosceptic economist Paolo Savona as finance minister. Savona has previously said that Italy either needs to take a step forward and become a single state (along with the rest of the Eurozone, presumably) or take a step backwards and re-create a system where devaluation is possible.

The President justified his veto of Savona by saying he was acting to protect Italian savers and because the election hadn’t given the Government a mandate to leave the Euro. But that might be stretching his constitutional powers. The President of the Republic appoints the Government, on the advice of the Prime Minister. Previous Presidents have vetoed a few appointments in the past, for example of Berlusconi’s personal lawyer as justice secretary, or of unqualified nominees. However, in this case the President is vetoing Savona not because of a concern over competence, nepotism, or a conflict of interests. He is refusing to appoint someone on the basis of his views.

The Italian President of the Republic does not have the powers of the American or French presidency. In the Italian parliamentary system, the presidency is supposed to represent 'national unity'. Entering a divisive issue of politics risks calling the president’s position into question. And that of course is precisely what has happened. Speaking yesterday, Salvini said that having Savona in the government was a red-line for the League. Meanwhile the Five Star have demanded the impeachment of the president - for attacking the Constitution no less!

The President has put forward a new figure Carlo Cottarelli as prime minister. This seems an almost deliberate slap in the face for the Five Star, the League, and indeed the electorate. Cottarelli is a former IMF director of fiscal affairs. He was nicknamed Mister Forbici, Mr Scissors, for his backing of spending cuts. Yet the joint programme of Government for the Five Star and League, analysed here by my colleague Enea Desideri, called for a precisely different economic path - more spending and tax cuts.

Why would the President do something so deliberately provocative? If he was looking to calm political tensions he could have put forward a neutral figure, perhaps a career civil servant as prime minister - one name that the was doing the rounds is the top diplomat Elisabetta Belloni. Cottarelli isn’t just offensive to the League and Five Star on the grounds of economic policy - he also directly opposes the right of the people to determine their own future. Speaking after Brexit, Cottarelli called for European leaders to block further referendums within the EU. When Italy has had technocratic administration before, those technocrats were able to win the support of Parliament. It seems very unlikely that the Five Star and League could support Cottarelli, but even if he does secure a mandate he has just committed to new elections by early next year.

In Italy the rhetorical temperature is red hot. We don’t yet know whether the League will back impeachment. So far they have been loath fully to break with their erstwhile running mates (and regional coalition partners) Forza Italia who have vociferously opposed impeachment. Yet would Salvini want to be out flanked by the Five Star? Yesterday, Salvini accused Europe - and especially Berlin - of blocking the formation of the new Government. He railed again the loss of sovereignty that the EU and Euro has entailed. Some are predicting this morning that if elections do come they will be a referendum on the Euro. The bigger risk is that they will become a referendum on democracy itself.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman