The unelected Italian President has carried out a soft coup which is highly undemocratic and which has thrown the country and the EU into mounting chaos, argues Chris Bambery
The only likely outcome of this political turmoil sweeping Italy is that it will boost support for the racist Lega and for the Five Star Movement (MS5). Together, they had formed a coalition government which had a parliamentary majority only for it to be effectively dismissed when the Italian President, Sergio Mattarella blocked their choice of finance minister because he was too critical of the European Union and the Euro - citing a supposed piece of the constitution which prevents Italy leaving the Euro.
Previously, Italian Presidents have blocked the appointment of ministers, but they have always done so with the agreement of the Prime Minister. This time the proposed prime minister, agreed by both MS5 and the Lega, Giuseppe Conte, did not agree. The basis for the President acting in this way is very murky. The Italian President is not directly elected, he is elected only by MPs, senators and 58 regional delegates.
Not only is the basis for the President effectively preventing a government with a majority taking office very dubious, the rationale behind it is starkly clear. Mattarella said he had vetoed Paolo Savona as finance minister because he had called Italy’s entry into the euro a “historic mistake”, and his appointment would have risked the confidence of foreign investors and destabilised the economy and the state. Mattarella’s priorities are reducing state spending and keeping Italy exactly where it is in regards to the EU, explaining that “our role in the EU is essential, as is our participation in the Eurozone.”
The dubiety of his action was ignored by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, who praised Mattarella for showing “great spirit of responsibility” in protecting Italy’s “institutional and democratic stability”. Germany’s Angela Merkel insisted any EU state’s economic policy had to be dictated by Eurozone rules.
What is striking is neither they nor Mattarella cited the Lega-MS5 coalition’s plans to deport half a million migrants as a reason why they were not fit to rule. That scandalous promise seems perfectly acceptable in ruling circles in both Rome and Brussels. Questioning how the Eurozone is run is not, as we’ve seen previously in the case of Greece.
Now Mattarella has appointed an unelected “technocratic” Carlo Cottarelli, as prime minister. He worked as a senior IMF official from 1988 until 2013. He left when a centre-left government appointed him to preside over reducing public spending by implementing austerity measures favoured by Brussels.
The new premier is unlikely to get a budget passed in the Italian parliament and that will trigger fresh elections after the August holidays. Something both the Lega and MS5 want because they believe anger over the President’s coup and its approval by Macron and Merkel will boost their vote. It is also likely that the election will focus on the austerity policies demanded by the EU. While both the Lega and MS5 have pulled back from promising to take Italy out of the Euro they remain deeply Eurosceptic.
The Italian elite, particularly those associated with the centre-left Democrats (in office until they lost the March elections) are slavish in their support for the EU. In that they are out of tune badly with a majority of Italians who are fed up with an economy which has scarcely grown in more than two decades, in large part because of Italy’s membership of the Euro, which means Italian exports are priced too high, and austerity is urged on the country by Brussels.
The Italian elite is rightly seen as interested in feathering its own nest and mired in corruption. Many Italians believed EU membership might correct that but it has not in any way. Italian MPs are paid the second most of any in the world.
The result of all this, plus a feeling that Italy, like Greece, has been left alone by its European allies to deal with the wave of migrants crossing over the Mediterranean from North Africa, has turned Italy from being pro-EU to being increasingly Eurosceptic.
The centre-left Democrats joined the applause for Mattarella’s coup and responded to the Lega and MS5’s call for peaceful protests by comparing them to the 1922 March on Rome that brought Benito Mussolini’s fascist dictatorship to power. The Lega is a nasty right-wing party but it is not fascist, and neither is MS5. Neither is Italy in the grip of civil war with fascist squads looting, burning and murdering as was the case in 1922.
The Democrats, the heirs to the once powerful Communist Party, has been losing support and much of its support in the poverty-ridden South has shifted to MS5. One reason being its promise of a basic income to citizens, something attractive to those whose lives are blighted by the high level of youth unemployment and the precariousness of those jobs that are available.
That underlines the contradiction in MS5 and its support. It has jumped into bed with the right-wing Lega. It shares its anti-migrant policies. But in the election, it promised a universal income and an end to austerity, rightly saying it stifled growth.
It is that contradiction into which the left needs to drive a wedge, while also being the one force prepared to defend migrants and oppose racism. But it cannot do that if it supports Mattarella’s coup or if it joins with the Democrats and the Italian elite in being a fan club for the EU.
An editorial in the left-wing Il Manifesto argued that while it was vital to oppose a government of the right, particularly its racist policy of mass deportations, the left has to oppose a dangerous constitutional precedent whereby the President can veto which ministers an elected government with a working majority can appoint, because it will be used against any future left-wing administration. That is 100 percent right.
Meanwhile, the Italian elite and the EU may have breathed a sigh of relief over this presidential veto but it is fuelling opposition to Italy’s place in the Eurozone and the EU’s austerity template. Italy’s banks are tottering on the edge of collapse and the budget deficit threatens the country’s finances already. Now the country faces a growing crisis but one which is spilling over into the EU. That crisis makes Brexit look like a storm in a teacup.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.