After an impasse that lasted nearly three months, Italy will soon have a government — and it is one that should be of great concern to the United States and to supporters of liberal democracy.
The Five Star Movement, founded by demagogic comedian Beppe Grillo and currently fronted by 31-year-old legislator Luigi Di Maio, took one-third of the vote in the March 4 election. But the M5S is against much more than it is for, offering generalized calls for direct democracy and a fuzzy and inconsistent anti-European Union stance. Grillo disdained partnerships with other parties, and so it was unclear who M5S could form a coalition with.
Scorning the center-left coalition that received a disappointing 23%, Di Maio turned to the center-right group. Its four parties totaled 37% in the election, topping M5S, but no one party came close to M5S’s showing. Di Maio found himself in negotiations with Matteo Salvini of The League, a xenophobic party that took 17%. (Forza Italia, still largely run by the disgraced Silvio Berlusconi, was the next-largest partner in Salvini’s bloc, and will therefore have a significant role in the new government.)
Salvini is a truly noxious fellow who has warned of a “migrant invasion,” called Islam incompatible with European values, threatened to shut down mosques, and threatened to deport 500,000 people. After a self-described fascist killed six North African migrants, Salvini expressed sympathy for the murderer, stating, “It’s clear that out of control immigration…will bring about social conflict.” He called for a “mass cleaning” of Italy, town by town, using “strong methods.” And he compared a female political rival to an inflatable sex doll.
The flaky but future-oriented Di Maio and the Mussolini throwback Salvini found little common ground, but also little interest in ceding the premiership to the other. Eventually both men withdrew from contention, and set out to find a lowest common denominator candidate who would be acceptable — or at least not unacceptable — to both.
This week, they landed on Giuseppe Conte, an unknown law professor with no political experience. Conte once described himself as a left winger, but he later shifted toward M5S. Most Italians’ introduction to him was the news that he may have padded his academic résumé. Nevertheless, he will become Italy’s 58th prime minister, and the head of its 65th government since the end of World War II.
If he can keep Di Maio and Salvini in line, and Berlusconi in the background, he will head a government that seeks closer ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin (including calls for Russia to be more assertive in the Middle East), has expressed skepticism about the euro, and that will join with illiberal EU states like Hungary regarding migrant policy. Indeed, Conte may become more of a partner to Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orbán than to Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
The coalition also offers a shaky economic policy. Salvini’s party has called for a flat tax, while Di Maio’s wants a guaranteed minimum income. Both sides have moderated, but they still call for more spending and less revenues. Italy’s public debt is already 132% of GDP, and a plan to roll back austerity cuts from seven years ago could turn Rome into Athens. (The European Central Bank has strongly hinted that it will not be lenient with Italy.)
The third-largest economy in the EU is about to become the most significant European state to succumb to the global populist wave. The most likely outcome is deadlock and inertia, followed by a new, possibly even more inconclusive, election. That may be the least bad option.