Italy has a new government, its 67th in the 73 years since the end of World War II. It had better work, because the alternative will likely be a hard-right, populist government that will shake Europe to its core.
The new government can be described only as a marriage of convenience. The two parties that form it, the center-left Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, have been bitter enemies for nearly a decade. The Five Stars see the Democrats, who have often led recent Italian governments, as part of the corrupt dysfunction that they have campaigned against. The Democrats, not surprisingly, see the Five Stars as inept rubes who can’t handle actual responsibility. These opposites do not naturally attract.
They have come together because each fears a government led by Italy’s most important political figure, Matteo Salvini. Salvini, 46, was unknown a decade ago, but he has built a once-small party into a national powerhouse. His fierce anti-migration policy and hostility toward the European Union, coupled with a 24/7 campaign ability that rivals President Trump’s, has made him Italy’s most popular politician. Early this summer, polls showed his Lega Party winning 38 percent of the vote — a showing that would allow him to form a government with a party with neo-fascist roots, the Brothers of Italy.
Salvini seized on these polls to withdraw from his own government coalition with the Five Stars. He told Italians that he needed “full powers” and thought his gambit would make him Italy’s supreme leader. He has instead created the shotgun wedding that formed the new government this week.
There’s reason to be scared of Salvini and his friends. The Brothers are descended from a long tradition of neo-fascist Italian parties that still command a small but not insignificant following among Italians. Its leader, Giorgia Meloni, said earlier this week that a Five Star-Democrat government would be “stealing the government,” notwithstanding the fact that just last year the two parties easily won a combined majority of the vote. Combined with statements from Lega politicians calling for Italians to “rise up” in opposition to the new government, this week’s episode is reminiscent of Mussolini’s famous “March on Rome” that toppled an elected government and brought his Fascist party to power.
Salvini himself has troublesome ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His Lega Party has a formal cooperation agreement with Putin’s United Russia Party, signed by Salvini himself. He has also tweeted “viva Putin” and said that he hoped Italy would hold “real parliamentary elections, just as open as in your country [Russia].” Russia, of course, is an authoritarian country without real open elections, so such a statement can only seriously be taken as slobbering flattery.
It was no surprise, then, when a Lega official was recently caught on tape soliciting Russian oil money to finance the party’s election campaigns. The scandal broke in mid-July, and Salvini toppled his own government about a month after the tape was made public. The new government, unhindered by the need to cooperate with Lega, can now freely investigate where this trail goes.
Lega’s policies would be controversial even if there were no ties to Russia. Italy is one of the most heavily indebted countries in the world and has seen little to no economic growth for two decades. Salvini’s answer: Slash taxes, hike spending and blast open the deficit. This economic policy runs directly counter to E.U. policy, which limits the annual deficit member countries can run. Should he take power in the future, Salvini would place Italy in a direct collision course with the European Union. The future of the euro zone, and perhaps Italy’s membership in the European Union itself, would be at risk.
The Five Stars and the Democrats have strong disagreements on policies. The Democrats are the European Union’s favored party, and they share many of the policy preferences of the Brussels elites. They oppose Salvini’s crackdown on accepting refugees from the Middle East and Africa, support Italy’s continued membership in the euro zone and do not want to break the European Union’s debt limit. The Five Stars want a more expansionary fiscal policy and will insist on reducing the size of the Italian Parliament, something that will endanger many career Democratic Party officials. Without a spirit of compromise, this marriage could break up quickly.
That would be bad for Italy and the West. Italy’s electoral system allows party coalitions that receive a bare majority of the vote to win a super-majority of parliamentary seats — just as in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. Should Salvini and his partners get a two-thirds majority of seats at the next election, they could change the Italian constitution without a popular vote — again, just as Orban did in Hungary. That is not an outcome anyone should want to risk.