ITALY can survive anything, having long since lost any illusions about the world. But its resilience will be tested by an election that has given two out-with-the-bums parties 50 per cent of the vote, pulverised the mainstream, prized vapid inexperience and seen Steve Bannon emerge as a purported expert on Tuscany.
Europe is split between its Franco-German liberal democratic core, led by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, and the angry illiberal movements ascendant in countries including Hungary, Poland and now Italy. The momentum is with the nativist insurgency, in part because the United States, under Donald Trump, has vanished as any sort of counterweight to European intolerance.
The US, as a European power, has been essential to European stability, not least in Italy. That’s going, or gone. Amnesiac Europeans seem ready to play with fire. Trump, being ahistorical, cares nothing for European tragedy, only about European tariffs.
The tide that ushered the Five Star Movement, a web-based party representing a ragtag band of disaffected voters, and the anti-immigrant League to victory has been rising for some time. Italy took some 64 per cent of the 186,000 migrants who reached Europe in 2017 through Mediterranean routes. It took the majority of these migrants in 2016, too. Promised European solidarity has evaporated; relocations have been scarce.
Italians, angered, have been looking for scapegoats. Who better than wandering Africans and the European Union?
The centre-left, as elsewhere in Europe apart from Britain, collapsed. The Democratic Party took just 18.7 per cent of the vote and its leader, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, said he would quit. Not even Silvio Berlusconi, whose resurgence had been much mooted, could defy anti-establishment gravity. His centre-right Forza Italia won 14 per cent.
The combined support of the two centrist parties scarcely equalled that of the Five Star Movement, “a typical Italian product, with a little bit of everything, mostly incompetence”, as Claudio Gatti, a prominent Italian journalist, put it to me.
The party, whose core is a web platform called Rousseau that’s supposed to deliver direct democracy, is a by-now-familiar 21st-century political product: tech-savvy, angry, sympathetic to Vladimir Putin, a vehicle for a hodgepodge of resentments and “fake news.” Its 31-year-old leader, Luigi di Maio, who was chosen after a Rousseau vote, stands for very little.
The party swept the poor Mezzogiorno, or southern Italy, where a culture of dependency on state handouts is deeply ingrained; unemployment is high; and corruption is rife. The money that long oiled the crony politics of the South has dried out. The Christian Democrats, patrons of that system, are gone. The Five Star Movement has stepped into a void with its inarticulate ire and its very southern opacity.
When TV was what mattered, Berlusconi, who still owns several channels, was the man. Now that the Internet has risen, the Five Star Movement is its natural Italian child. The digital world was supposed to bring people together. In fact, social media has hurled them apart, less bridge-builder than disintegrator.
In the north, it was the League that triumphed — and was promptly praised by the rightist French National Front of Marine Le Pen. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, is an anti-immigrant bigot who has called for cities to be “cleansed” by the police. For Northern Italy, which is rich, the Mezzogiorno, particularly Sicily, was once “Africa”, a place from which the poor came north seeking jobs. Now Africa is Africa.
It will not be easy to form a government. The League and Five Star Movement have the numbers to govern, but Salvini has waved away such suggestions. Steve Bannon thinks it’s a good idea — “a bigger mandate to govern” and presumably generate the havoc he seeks. (Bannon was also impressed that the League “got 20 per cent of the votes in Tuscany, which is traditionally a turf of the left or the centre left: this is equivalent to Wisconsin going to Trump”, as he opined to the Swiss publication Die Weltwoche. Well, if you insist, Steve; had never thought of the Green Bay-Florence axis.)
Other possibilities, none of which look stable, include a centre-right coalition that would need outside support to have enough seats to govern and would presumably see the odious Salvini as prime minister; a far-fetched coalition of the Five Star Movement and the Left; or a German-style grand coalition that, as in Germany, would see the defeated mainstream parties trying to govern and would thereby fuel rage against democracies that refuse to heed what voters say.
Putin is certainly happy. Trump is likely happy. The giants of European unity and freedom — Alcide De Gasperi of Italy, Konrad Adenauer of Germany, Robert Schuman of France — are turning in their graves. The almost three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall have been a long strange trip to the politics of the mob.
The wise Mario Draghi completes his term as governor of the European Central Bank in October. He’s the best answer to Italy’s problems I can see. Rome has seen empires come and go; it can see out the seven months until then.--NYT