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The rightwing League and the progressive-populist 5-Star Movement are about to form a new coalition government in Italy. However, given the large number of differences between the parties and Silvio Berlusconi’s efforts to undermine the government, it might not last long, says Prof. Steve Hellman

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GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. Italy’s two main populist parties, the right-wing League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, are finally on the verge of forming a coalition, according to an announcement made on Monday. It’s been over two months since Italy held a parliamentary election that resulted in massive losses for the previously governing centre-left Democratic Party.

Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella will soon decide on who to appoint as prime minister. Until recently, the main stumbling block for a coalition between the two parties was whether former Prime Minister Sergio Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, would be part of the coalition. The League and the Five Star Movement were able to proceed when Berlusconi said last week that he and his party would not be a part of the coalition.

Joining me from Toronto to analyze Italy’s current political situation is Steve Hellman. He’s Professor emeritus and senior scholar at York University in the department of politics. He has long specialized in Italian politics, and recently wrote an extensive analysis titled, Italy: Requiem for the Second Republic, for the website Thanks for joining us today, Professor Hellmann.

STEVE HELLMAN: My pleasure.

GREG WILPERT: So, now that the Five Star Movement and the League have come to a coalition agreement- or almost, they said the final announcement will probably be made on Wednesday. And this is without Silvio Berlusconi. What kinds of politics do you expect them to pursue for Italy? It’s a bit of a strange coalition, considering that the League is generally considered to be right wing, and the Five Star Movement, in some ways, is often considered to be progressive. Where would be their areas of agreement?

STEVE HELLMAN: Well, the one thing that is absolutely clear where they both agree is to reform, and indeed they would like to radically overturn, the currently existing pension law. And that has been going on for decades, ever since they introduced the neoliberal reforms to the pension plan in Italy, there has been a lot of resistance from across the spectrum. And that’s one thing that these two groups are absolutely in agreement about, but that’s about the only thing where there’s really clearly one hundred percent agreement.

Other issues, and the ones that are going to be the most problematic, have to do with spending a ton of money in order to have a basic citizenship income. And that’s something that the Five Star Movement has promised, a basic income- that for the Five Star Movement would be mainly to help really poor families, but also, above all, to get young people into the labor market, or nonetheess, give them a cushion, even if they’re having trouble getting into the labour market. For the League, the way it’s worked out so far- the League is talking about, “Yeah we’ll give them money, but it’s going to be a loan, and as soon as they get a job, they have to pay us back.” So, you can see right away, there’s a lot of tension with regard to that one.

GREG WILPERT: What about the immigration issue? It seems like that is also another area where there might be some agreement, and what form might that take?

STEVE HELLMAN: Well again, depending on how much money the Italian state will be prepared to spend, and how much agreement there will be between the Five Star and the League, it can take many forms. The League wants to establish detention centers immediately, and pack people into them, and then get them sent on their way. The Five Star Movement, as you indicated before, they have a bit more of a progressive take. So, even when they’re anti-immigrant, they have tended to say, “Well, okay we want to get illegal immigrants out of here, but if they’re refugees from countries where there are terrible conditions, we can’t send them back to their death or to a place where there’s no civil rights for them.”.

So, again there, there will be some tension both about how to spend this money and how much is spent on setting camps up, but also simply on what the policies will be.

GREG WILPERT: So, given the tension that you expect, and the contradictions between the two groups, I guess the expectation is that it’s going to be a highly unstable coalition. Is there an expectation that it will actually last the full legislative period, and also, who might be the likely candidate for prime minister, and what role might they play in in terms of shaping this government?

STEVE HELLMAN: Well, good question, because the very fact that they’ve been going back and forth there for a couple of months, fighting over who’s going to lead the government, gives you some sense of how unstable this whole situation really is. By normal parliamentary procedure, the Five Star Movement would have every right to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair. Because, after all, they got more- well just about twice as many votes as the League.

On the other hand, there’s blackmail politics. And without the League, the Five Star camp can’t sit in the prime minister’s chair. And they were insisting that they would have the chair. So, you have this back and forth. And now what they’re trying to do is come up with someone who’s mutually agreeable to them and who also, quite importantly, is someone acceptable to the President of the Republic, who has to sort of give the okay, in order to get this government on its feet.

It’s going to be unstable for another- a couple of reasons. Number one, they have a very, very thin majority in the upper chamber of the parliament, which is the senate. I think it’s only a five or six seat majority. And they are sure to be defections and all kinds of schemes, backstabbing, and everything going on.

Similarly, Silvio Berlusconi, who’s just gotten a court decision in his favor to get back into Parliament, because he was excluded because of his criminal conviction- well he’s now served enough time, presumably, to be of Italian justice standards. He’ll be back in there, and he is openly scheming, from the getgo, to try to bring this government down before it’s even set up. He said, “Let him go ahead, I withdraw from any consideration here, I’ll step aside, but essentially, a pox on both your houses.”

People may remember that he ran in coalition with the League, but kind of saying, “Vote for me, I’m the grandfather of the country. I’ll be that nice stable secure person whereas all these other big populist parties are completely irresponsible.” So, you’ve got a real witch’s brew going on on the right.

GREG WILPERT: So I want to turn a little bit more to the bigger picture. Tell us what this coalition agreement or this coalition might mean for Italian politics, and how it would be transforming politics in Italy? And also, related to that, why is it that the Five Star Movement, which is such a strange kind of political movement, has been able to surge so much, so dramatically, gaining and becoming the largest party in Italy, in effect.

STEVE HELLMAN: Well, it’s it’s very, very interesting. I mean, this really is a almost unique phenomenon. They spread, not out of nowhere- they had been around as a web-based movement, having very raucous, big, huge popular rallies for quite a few years before they actually ran as a governmental party. And that was in 2013, they first appeared. And from zero votes, because they didn’t present themselves in the previous election, they got a quarter of all the votes in the country. So, it wasn’t like they totally came from nowhere.

But then, of course, in this last election it got nearly thirty three percent of the votes, to- as you indicated, Greg- to make them the largest party in the country. And that largely has to do with the huge vacuum opened up by the lapping around failures, on the one hand, of the center left. And on the other hand, simply all the other parties have failed to present any sort of reasonable way for Italians to see their way out of the lethargy, the very, very slow growth, the stagnation, sense of not going anywhere at all. And I suppose those are the primary reasons for its great success.

What’s going to happen in the future is very hard to say. If they come anywhere close to implementing the kind of programs that they’re talking about- the most recent estimates about what this would cost are absolutely through the roof. So, we’re talking about, for the additional programs that I mentioned, some of them- the pension reforms, The Basic Income Supplement, all the other things that they promised- oh, and by the way, the League wants to have completely free daycare for everybody, because they’ve got a natalist sort of program, where they want to encourage Italians. So, of course, not foreigners, right, Italians to have lots of lots of babies and be able to work in the labour force same time. So, let’s have free daycare for everybody. Well, you know, that’s of course a few billion here and there.

And as you add all these things together, I think the closest estimate I saw is it would jack up the current budget by about ten percent over current expenditures. Oh, and they’re also going to cut taxes like crazy. And that’s one of the reasons that the budget will rise so high, would be that where they’re going to get the money from is anybody’s guess. So, for all these reasons, if these policies were to be put into place it would no doubt really stimulate the economy in a very Keynesian way. But at the same time, it’s going to create innumerable difficulties with the European Union, and they are enforcers.

So, it will remain to be seen what’s going to happen in terms of how this is going to play out, because the EU, which is increasingly unpopular, which has helped gain both of these parties a lot of votes-if the EU is insistant on austerity and the usual package that it tries to ram down everybody’s throat, then they create a backlash in Italy against the EU. And since Italy isn’t Greece and can’t just be either pushed around or thrown right off the ship without any big consequences for the European economy, that will create a very, very uncertain situation.

GREG WILPERT: Well, unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but to I’m sure we’ll come back to you again as this coalition shapes up and as more issues come up, to analyze and make sense of. I was speaking to Steve Hellman, professor emeritus at the York University Department of Politics. Thanks again for having joined us today Professor Hellman.

STEVE HELLMAN: And thank you for having me.

GREG WILPERT: Bye, and thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Gregory Wilpert is Managing Editor at TRNN. He is a German-American sociologist who earned a Ph.D. in sociology from Brandeis University in 1994. Between 2000 and 2008 he lived in Venezuela, where he first taught sociology at the Central University of Venezuela and then worked as a freelance journalist, writing on Venezuelan politics for a wide range of publications and also founded, an English-langugage website about Venezuela. In 2007 he published the book, Changing Venezuela by Taking Power: The History and Policies of the Chavez Government (Verso Books). In 2014 he moved to Quito, Ecuador, to help launch teleSUR English. In early 2016 he began working for The Real News Network as host, researcher, and producer. Since September 2018 he has been working as Managing Editor at The Real News. Gregory's wife worked as a Venezuelan diplomat since 2008 and from January 2015 until October 2018 she was Venezuela's Ambassador to Ecuador.