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Italy’s president Sergio Matarella has thrown the country’s politics into turmoil when he rejected the parliament’s chosen Prime Minister and instead chose a former IMF economist as Prime Minister, in order to save Italy’s standing in the European Union. But he seems to have miscalculated and provided an opening for the far-right, explains Prof. Steve Hellman

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GREGORY WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Quito, Ecuador. A major political crisis erupted in Italy on Sunday, when President Sergio Mattarella rejected a coalition agreement between the right-wing League and the center-left, populist Five Star Movement. Instead of accepting the coalition’s proposal for prime minister, Mattarella decided to name Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF economist, as prime minister. Cottarelli is to form an interim caretaker government until new elections can be held later this year.

Pro-European politicians welcomed the president’s decision and the rejection of the left-right-populist coalition, saying it would stabilize markets and ensure that Italy remains within the Eurozone. However, Luigi De Mayo, the leader of the Five Star Movement, which had won the largest share of the vote in last month’s parliamentary election, lambasted the president’s decision. Here’s what he had to say in a taped address to the Italian people on Monday.

LUIGI DE MAYO: Hello everyone. Last night was the darkest hour in Italy’s democracy. President Sergio Mattarella chose to ride over his constitutional prerogatives and not let into power a political force, The Five Star Movement, which received 11 million votes, a government that would have had an absolute parliamentary majority, thanks to a contract signed with the League. Instead, a technical government has been formed which hasn’t ever received a vote, led by Prime Minister Carlo Cottarelli, with the assurance of never having a parliamentary majority. So, we will have a government, now only not voted for by the people, but not even by the parliament, a shameful event in the history of the Republic.

GREGORY WILPERT: Meanwhile, reacting to the political upheaval, Italy’s stock market dropped by as much as five percent since the naming of Carlo Cottarelli as prime minister. It is unlikely though, that the parliament will confirm Cottarelli as prime minister, which means that there might be new elections in Italy as early as August. Joining me from Toronto to analyze Italy’s political crisis is Steve Hellman. Steve is professor emeritus and senior scholar at York University in the Department of Politics, and he has long specialized in Italian politics. Thanks for joining us again Steve.


GREGORY WILPERT: So, it seems that Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, is making quite a gamble. Supposedly, he’s hoping that by rejecting the coalition between the two anti-EU populist parties, the right-wing League and the center-left Five Star Movement, he can save Italy’s economy and its membership in the Eurozone. But given how the markets are reacting to this decision, and how the political parties are reacting, it actually seems like a tremendous miscalculation on the part of Mattarella, don’t you think?

STEPHEN HELLMAN: Well, so far it certainly looks that way. You can understand that on the one hand, he thought he really was doing what the Constitution required and what the political situation required, but only by simply ignoring what the results of the election were. On the other hand, it’s also the case that they could have had a government if that the League had been a little more flexible, because one of the alternatives that they put forward was, they said, okay- the reason that Mattarella absolutely refused to sign on to this particular government wasn’t the fact that this guy, Conte, was named as prime minister, but that a rabidly anti-EU person was named by the League to be the finance and economics minister. That guy, named Savona, was persona non grata for Mattarella.

There was an agreement on everyone’s part, except the League, that they could put in even a League-named person, they even had a name put forward. If this guy had gotten the stamp of approval from Salvini, the head of the League, then there would have been no problem. They could have put the government forward. But Salvini, for his own reasons, really dug his heels in and said, no. Either my guy or we blow the whole thing up. So, particularly under those circumstances, to have polarized it so much, for Mattarella then to have put forward, really just look as if the consequences could be quite severe.

GREGORY WILPERT: So, two questions seem to loom largely in all of this. First of all, why would Mattarella, who is technically the head of state, but not the head of government, make such an undemocratic, or what appears so- what many are saying, especially the Five Star Movement, as we just saw, say is an undemocratic decision? And secondly, can he, according to Italy’s Constitution? There seem to be some questions about this.

STEPHEN HELLMAN: Well, to take the second question first, he definitely can do what he did according to the Constitution. Article 22 of the Italian Constitution says that he consults with the leaders of the parties, he names the prime minister, and then he takes under advisement, he listens to and goes along with- if he chooses- goes along with the list of ministers. On numerous occasions, since the birth of the so-called “Second Republic” in the early 1990s, presidents of the Republic have actually said, no, this person doesn’t work. No, that person’s not a good idea.

And indeed, Berlusconi’s first government, back in 1994, that included former fascists, had to basically sign an agreement with the President of the Republic at that time, confirming that these people stood on the side of Italy’s defense alliances, on the side of legitimacy, the rule of law and everything else. So, the president does have that kind of flexibility. That’s within his is right. But he did push it quite a bit this time, because he made very explicit, and this goes to the first part of your question- he made it very explicit that reason for him blocking the nomination of Savona was primarily because Savona was anti-EU.

And what he then called upon as evidence, he said, look at what’s happening in the markets right now- the spread between Italian bonds and German bonds has not been so great for years, Italians’ savings are in trouble, precisely because this puts the entire economy into question. Those are also items listed in the Constitution. I mean, Mattarella was being very shrewd about this. In the Constitution it says that one of the things that the state has to do is defend the Italian savings. So, he explicitly came forward with it, and said, look, this is one of the reasons that I’m doing this.

Now, for all of those explanations- or you can call them excuses, whatever you like- what comes across is, especially with naming someone who comes straight out of the IMF, is that this looks like bending the will of the Italian people to and externally imposed foreign entity that many of these parties had indeed been running against. Which is to say, the European Union institutions and international fine funds, and things like that. So, what it portends for the future, in terms of the new elections, which certainly will have to come, will be a very, very interesting thing.

GREGORY WILPERT: Well actually, many analysts I saw are saying that this could be a tremendous opportunity for the far-right parties, such as the League, formerly known as the Northern League, and also Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, mainly because they can portray this- that the people can now vote to reject this undemocratic posture of the elites in Italy. And as a matter of fact, Berlusconi actually, welcomed the new elections. and he had been shut out of this previous coalition agreement. Would you agree with his assessment that the main beneficiaries could end up being the far-right in Italy?

STEPHEN HELLMAN: Well, I wouldn’t include Berlusconi in the far-right. And in fact, what’s been going on since this whole crisis, since the March 4 elections, and all the jostling and maneuvering, jockeying and backstabbing that’s been going on, is- Berlusconi, as you rightly noted, Greg, has been marginalized. The great advantage, it seems, has gone to the League, because in all this dealing with the Five Star Movement, the has come out on top constantly. The Five Star Movement has emerged looking as if all it wanted was power, and Salvini, from the League, has played this enormously to his advantage.

So, Even the platform that the two groups put together- and let’s remember that the Five Star Movement has twice the votes, and twice the seats in parliament, of the League. Nonetheless, the Five Star Movement ended up basically buckling under on the League on just about every significant issue, precisely because it just looked so keen to get into power. The polls have shown that indeed, as this has gone on, the League has been drawing support away from the Five Star Movement, because after all, those people who voted for Five Star because it was kind of a conservative populism as opposed to a progressive populism, now they see somebody who ‘s even more strongly conservatively populist.

So, I would say, yeah, on balance, making the distinctions between someone like Berlusconi, who’s really kind of all over the place in the middle of center-right spectrum, and the far-right, like the League and the Brothers of Italy, the Fratelli d’Italia, the ex-neofascists, they do seem more poised to gain from a new election, at least if things continue the way they’re going right now. And I don’t see any reason why they shouldn’t continue going this way, precisely because Mattarella has handed the right a great platform to run on. They say, you see, this is what we wanted to run against. And here, they’re showing it, they’re slapping you in the face with this, just imposing whatever the elites want, exactly as you put it, Greg.

GREGORY WILPERT: Right, we can’t conclude without quickly looking at what’s going on with Italy’s left. In the last election, the Democratic Party, which has some of Italy’s left in it, lost tremendously, dropping from thirty to less than twenty percent of the vote. And most leftists, that is, the more further left parties, barely got four percent of the vote combined. What’s going on with Italy’s left, which used to be so powerful once?

STEPHEN HELLMAN: Yeah, I think a lot of those people are still stuck in the days when they used to be powerful, and they keep repeating some of the same mantras from the past. And they honestly don’t know how to deal with some of the issues that have come up. For example, one of the key issues in the election has been immigration, migration, both legal and refugees pouring across the Mediterranean, from Libya and from other places. And quite frankly, the left just doesn’t have an answer for that, and the right has made that into a key issue. And by the way, obviously not only in Italy, but in Italy it’s so dramatic, precisely because of geography. And that’s one really key point.

The other key point is that the left is sort of middle-of-the-road, mainstream left, the Democratic Party, which just got clobbered, really stuck to the European Union, and while it tried to take a distance- when Matteo Renzi was prime minister, he tried to take a more arm’s length distance from the austerity policies of the EU, et cetera. Nonetheless, when it comes to arguing and trying to outflank people on an anti-EU position, particularly when you want to stick with the EU fundamentally, which the PD, the Democratic Party does, but it is not at all clear. Certainly, it’s clear that the League does not want to stick with the EU, and where the Five Star Movement stands is somewhere in-between.

When you’re competing on those terrains, you’re going to lose. And that’s one of the things that they’ve done. And finally, the left-wing government did very, very little- the center-left government- did very, very little for the workers. They passed a Jobs Act, actually called, literally, in Italian, nonetheless called in English, Jobs Act, that enables manufacturers and employers to fire people more easily, gave them much more flexibility. If you know their current terminology, it introduced a lot of “flexicurity” into the into the whole job market, in the labor market.

And that also did not do the center-left any good. However, in the election, the far-left, if you can call it that, did pathetically. And so, as you mentioned, four percent combined, three percent went to the break-away from the Democratic Party, and one percent went to a thing called Power to The People, which was really the last remains of the old real hammer and sickle left.

GREGORY WILPERT: Okay, well unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it here for now, but I’m sure we’ll come back to you once things start to shape up a little bit more. I was speaking to Steve Hellman, professor emeritus at York University in the Department of Politics. Thanks again, Steve, for having joined us today.

STEPHEN HELLMAN: Always my pleasure, Greg, take care.

GREGORY WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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