Return of Mussolini: Will Powerful Anti-immigrant Populists Bring Down the Italian State?

It’s certainly 'anti-establishment' for Italy’s populist political leader Matteo Salvini to threaten violence if his demands are not met. But it's also dangerous in a country that's never really come to terms with its fascist past

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The League party's activists hold flares as they arrive to attend a rally by party's leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.
The League party's activists hold flares as they arrive to attend a rally by party's leader Matteo Salvini, in Milan, Italy, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.Credit: Antonio Calanni/AP
Ariel David
Ariel David

Last week, Italy was expected to become the first major EU country to be led by a government of Eurosceptic populists. But, proving that things can always get worse, this week it has become the first major EU country where there is an open constitutional clash between democratic and populist forces – with the latter strongly favored to come out on top.

Even by Rome's notorious standards of political instability, the premiership of Giuseppe Conte ranks as one of the briefest.

Less than a week after he was given a mandate by the country's president to form a government backed by a coalition of populist parties, the little-known law professor resigned his post.

Sergio Mattarella, Italy's president, arrives to speak at a news conference following meetings with political parties at the Quirinale Palace in Rome, Italy, on Friday, April 13, 2018.Credit: Bloomberg

Officially, the effort collapsed after President Sergio Mattarella refused to confirm economist Paolo Savona as finance minister, citing his positions against the Euro and his plans to extract Italy from the common currency.

But even a basic understanding of Italy's political system shows that torpedoing the government over this veto was a mere pretext put up by the new coalition that had been formed by the far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim League party and the grassroots anti-establishment 5 Star Movement.

Under Italy's constitution, the president serves as an arbiter above the political fray, and he is in charge of choosing government ministers in consultation with the prime minister-designate. Past presidents have vetoed multiple names for top cabinet posts, and each time the leading coalition submitted a different, more acceptable, candidate and went on its merry way to form a government.

But this time, the League and 5 Stars seized upon the president's veto to cry "coup," push their designated PM to step down and call for new elections. Luigi Di Maio - who recently took over as head of the 5 Star Movement from its founder, comedian Beppe Grillo - accused the president of "treason" and asked that parliament begin impeachment proceedings against him.

League chief Matteo Salvini, a self-professed political ally of U.S. President Donald Trump, French far-right leader Marine Le Pen and Russian President Vladimir Putin, claimed that Mattarella had "sold" Italy to foreign "powers" in "Brussels, Berlin, Paris or across the ocean."

The League leader Matteo Salvini talks during a press conference at the foreign press association headquarters, Wednesday, March 14, 2018.Credit: Alessandra Tarantino/AP

The firebrand populist demanded that the president immediately dissolve parliament and call new elections, "otherwise, we'll see you all in Rome," a not-too-veiled reference to the 1922 March on Rome that brought Benito Mussolini to power.

The over-the-top reaction to the president doing exactly what the constitution empowers him to do is part and parcel with the anti-establishment rhetoric of these populist parties. Equally unsurprising is that a leading politician may dangle the threat of violence if his demands are not met. 

In a country that has never really come to terms with its fascist past, it is not unusual for politicians to praise the Duce or adopt his rhetoric, especially for a party like the League, which for years has organized its militants in gangs called – without a shred of irony – the Green Shirts.

Salvini himself has said that fascism "did many good things" and ahead of elections he promised to "cleanse" Italy of illegal migrants, "house by house, street by street, piazza by piazza, by force if necessary." 

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini is greeted by some of his troops in the Piazza Popolo, Rome, March 28, 1928, celebrating the founding of the Fascist Army nine years before.Credit: AP

But in this case, Salvini's threats and Di Maio's impeachment histrionics are likely to be mostly bluster, simply because Italy's populists have already gotten everything they wanted.

The two parties, which emerged as Italy's strongest political forces in the March 4 parliamentary elections, had reached a shaky coalition agreement after weeks of negotiations.

The deal was based on an improbable mix of ultra-liberalist policies – such as introducing a flat tax rate – and socially-minded moves such as reducing the retirement age and granting citizen stipends. How the coalition could have fulfilled such costly, crowd-pleasing promises without further inflating Italy's enormous public debt (now at 132 percent of GDP) remains a mystery.

But that is beside the point, because this unprecedented yellow-green alliance (named after the colors of the 5 Stars and League) was not really planning to govern. There are still vast differences and strong rivalries between the nationalist, xenophobic League and the social-media-addicted conspiracy theorists of the 5 Stars, and their pact, backed by a slim parliamentary majority, was unlikely to last long. 

A mural depicting Northern League's leader Matteo Salvini and 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio kissing is seen in Rome, Italy March 23, 2018. Credit: \ TONY GENTILE/ REUTERS

The 5 Star Movement is particularly strong in the south, and many of its voters must remember that the League, before its fairly recent transformation into a nationalist "Italy First" party, was a regional political force that advocated the secession of the country's rich, industrialized north from the relatively impoverished south. Just a few years ago, Salvini himself was caught on camera singing a derogatory northern soccer chant that roughly translates to: "What's that smell? Even the dogs are running, the [southern] Neapolitans are coming." 

Also, like all populists parties, these movements thrive on the campaign trail, where they can channel voter anger and share catchy slogans on Twitter and Facebook. But once they are actually in power they risk being exposed as inept and inexperienced. 

The 5 Stars know this well: They have ruled Rome for the last two years and their mismanagement of the city has left it in a state of disrepair and chaos. In yet another international embarrassment, the last leg of the Giro d'Italia cycling race, which took place in the capital Sunday, had to be cut short after the riders complained of potholes and poor road safety. 

But while they were wary of taking the country's lead, the 5 Stars and League could also not afford to show they were weak and incapable of forming a government. Pushing the country's president into a corner over their finance minister pick provided the perfect way out.

Had Mattarella accepted their anti-euro candidate, he would likely have sent markets tumbling and the cost of Italy's borrowing soaring, putting the country on the path to defaulting on its debt and leaving the Euro. Predictably, the president rejected their choice, opening the door to new elections that can now be blamed on the establishment's purported attempt to overturn the will of the people.

Italy's populist 5 Star Movement founder Beppe Grillo addresses supporters with party's leader Luigi di Maio (R) during the last election campaign meeting in Rome's Piazza del Popolo. March 2, 2018Credit: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP

The vote, likely to be held at the end of the summer, will be easily framed, to borrow the words Salvini used in a Facebook Live video, as a fight between "democracy and the elites," between "those who want the best for Italy and Italians and those who have sold out Italians' future."

Many Italians seem to be buying the image of the League's leader as the savior of democracy. Polls already see Salvini soaring above 27 percent (up from 17 percent in the March election), while the 5 Stars have dropped slightly, from 32 to 30 percent – possibly losing some first-time left wing supporters unhappy with the movement's eagerness to bunk up with the xenophobic League.

Perhaps because he had seen those latest polls, on Wednesday night, Di Maio slightly walked back his fiery rhetoric, suggesting a 5 Stars-League government could still be possible.

Whenever Italians do head to the polls again, a strong showing at the ballot box could allow either of these parties to govern alone, with a clear and strong mandate to take Italy, a founding member of the EU, out of the Eurozone and possibly the union itself, sending shockwaves across the continent and the global economy. 

And another European country would be on the way to adopting a punitive anti-immigrant platform, guided by the Islamophobic views of the League, whose ideologues have described Muslims as a threat to the “white race.”

With mainstream parties still reeling from their recent defeat in March and unprepared to mount a credible challenge on short notice, Salvini, Di Maio and their supporters don't need to march on Rome. They already have it within their grasp.

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