Wednesday, 30 May 2018

Italy's Ship of Fools: The Democratic Party sailing towards annihilation

by Daniele Albertazzi and Mattia Zulianello **

After Giuseppe Conte, designated as prime minister by the populist parties League and Five Star Movement (M5S), gave up his bid to form a government on 27 May, all eyes have been on the parties that backed him and what they may do next.
Much less is being written on the party that – in theory – should take advantage of the populists’ aborted attempt to govern: the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). Given that both League and M5S have run their 2018 campaign against it, it is logical to ask whether the PD could benefit in electoral terms from the misfortunes of its critics.
The indications so far is that the very opposite is likely to be the case. Hence, like Plato’s “Ship of Fools”, the PD may well continue to sail towards oblivion, as it has done for months now, each of its many would-be leaders hopelessly trying to steer the ship in a different direction.
The most recent history of this party centres on the rise and fall of Matteo Renzi, who led it between December 2013 and February 2017 (and also served as Italy’s prime minister during some of this time). As he took charge of it, Renzi embodied a new generation of politicians who wanted to "scrap", as he famously said, both the old political class that was running the PD and the country, by embarking on a series of reforms that would prove his reformist zeal. In fact, rather than “scrapping” the old way of doing things, his policies offered the usual doses of neoliberalism (for instance on employment legislation, pension reform and welfare) – in a country that had suffered badly due to years of austerity and anemic growth. In short, and not unlike Social-Democratic parties in other European countries, Renzi’s PD increasingly took on the mantle of the market- and flexibility-friendly party, while losing touch with the many people who were struggling to make ends meet.
Having lost a referendum on complicated constitutional matters at the end of 2016 after turning it into a referendum on himself, Renzi’s image was irremediably tarnished, leading to him resigning the prime ministership first, and then also (officially at least) the party leadership. Renzi’s descending trajectory plunged the PD as a whole into a crisis and, before the 2018 elections, the party suffered a split with some of the party’s left-wing politicians leaving it to form a new party.
Following the electoral defeat of March 2018 – when the PD gained 18.7% of the vote, as opposed to 25.4% in the previous election – the party nominated Maurizio Martina as its ad interim leader. It also postponed its much needed Conference to July. Martina is truly a transitional figure, unable to set a clear direction to it and/or undertake the first steps towards reform, also because the PD’s internal factions keep constantly bickering among themselves. Instead, the key player has remained the same Renzi, who even in recent days stole the media show, by framing the events leading to Conte’s departure as an epic battle between a “responsible” pro-EU president (backed by the PD) and the “irresponsible”, “extremist” M5S and League.
Leaderless and unable to forge an identity for itself after the years of Renzi’s empty “younghism”, the PD does not appear to own any specific policies able to address people’s problems. And how could it do so, when it has not even decided whether to be Social-Democratic, Liberal or both, and when it does not know whether to be the party of the urban, educated middle classes or try to regain some of its working class support? In the hours following Conte’s announcement that he was not going to become prime minister after all, as M5S and League intensified their attacks against the president, the PD was not going much further than talking about “defending” the Constitution and the European project against “populism”. If this is all the PD can come up with as the next elections approach, the M5S will find it very easy to argue that it is the party defending the banks, the EU Commission and Germany's interference into Italian affairs, and still totally oblivious to the plight of common people. As it stands now, the PD does not have the strength or vision to resist this tide. The next election may well be remembered, among other things, as the final chapter in the centre-left party's foolish journey.

** This article was originally published by Euronews

Italy’s political crisis is a moment of reckoning for European liberal democracy

by Jim Newell **

After months of wrangling, Italy’s political crisis has a hit an impasse, with new elections now increasingly likely. The country faces an institutional crisis without precedent in the history of the Italian republic. Its implications extend well beyond Italy, to the European Union as a whole.
Since an election on March 4, there have been endless vain attempts to form a government – with the likely outcome changing every 24 hours. By mid-May, the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League, both populist parties, had come together to draft a programme for government featuring tax cuts and spending plans. But it sent shivers down the spines of those contemplating Italy’s public debt – running at over 130% of GDP – and threatened the stability of the eurozone.
They were prevented from taking office thanks to their insistence on the appointment of the economics professor, Paolo Savona, as finance minister. Due to Savona’s well-known eurosceptic views, Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, refused to appoint him.
Although Mattarella’s decision is within the constitution, and previous presidents have refused to appoint certain ministers before, it is in many respects without precedent and has arguably enabled the populists – who have a parliamentary majority – to stage a propaganda coup. The institutional crisis has been deepened by M5S’s announcement that it will seek to “impeach” the president and by calls from both parties for public demonstrations to protest Matarella’s decision.
The appointment of Carlo Cottarelli, a former official from the International Monetary Fund, as prime minister on May 28 was merely a stop-gap measure until fresh elections in the autumn. His government will almost certainly fail to win the necessary vote of confidence required of all incoming governments upon taking office. This means that it will be unable to undertake any legislative initiatives that go beyond day-to-day administration.

Populists emboldened

Under these circumstances, campaigning for the next election will continue throughout the summer with the far-right, anti-immigrant, League, emboldened by a considerable jump in its opinion poll ratings.
Support for the M5S is less certain but the party is likely to benefit from the same anti-establishment narrative that powers the League and whose purchase has been so considerably strengthened by the showdown with the president. The problem for M5S, which draws its support from across the left-right spectrum, is that it has been driven into the arms of a far-right, eurosceptic party from whose embrace it will find it difficult to extract itself during the coming weeks. The campaign seems bound to focus on the two themes that have given rise to the crisis: the programme for government agreed by the two parties and popular disaffection arising from Italy’s place in Europe. Against this background, it’s highly likely that the upcoming election will be widely framed as a contest between the forces of the establishment, on the one hand, and their eurosceptic challengers on the other.
This was suggested by M5S leader, Luigi Di Maio, in a recent Facebook post which, in true populist fashion, framed the issue as a basic principle of democracy:
Let us be clear about it: in this country, voting is pointless because whatever the outcome, governments are decided upon by the ratings agencies and the financial and banking lobbies. It is always the same people who decide.

Constitutionalism at stake

While such rhetoric serves to fan the flames of popular resentment and undermines the authority of Italy’s democratic institutions, it is based on the dangerous premise that democracy is about the supremacy of the will of a majority. Rather than – as is set out in the first article of the Italian constitution – that democracy is the exercise of popular sovereignty “in the forms and within the limits of the constitution”.
In this respect it reflects the unfolding of a crisis with clear echoes elsewhere in Europe, most notably the UK, Hungary and Poland. The Italian impasse was precipitated by populist politicians whose challenge to the entire European integration project carries with it an attack on the basic assumptions of liberal democracy.
Looking back on the March 4 elections, it’s difficult to think of a more significant vote in the recent history of Europe. It was one that has raised questions about the nature of party politics, the future of the EU and about the nature of democracy itself in the 21st century.

** This article was originally published by The Conversation