Pardon the postscript first. With the appointment of Giuseppe Conte, a lawyer, as a compromise Prime Minister of Italy, the wheel has come full circle. But before the Italian see-saw could stabilise, Spains Mariano Rajoy has thrown in his towel in the face of corruption charges that actually never left him since 2015. Establishments in Italy as well as Spain have been mauled in recent days by Peoples Power. This Peoples Power has been given an insulting name by the rulers — “Populism”.
Meanwhile herewith the column I wrote from Rome yesterday (Thursday) before travelling to the troubled countryside.
From the terrace bars, Rome’s current vogue, the monuments look mysterious in soft light even as St. Peters towers above all. But this panoramic grandeur disguises the tumult into which Italy has been tossed after President Sergio Mattarella, a judge by training, refused to swear in Paolo Savona, the 83-year-old economics professor who is staunchly against the European Union (EU).
Savona’s name had been proposed by the victorious alliance which came to power following the elections in March. The Five Star Movement is anti-austerity and anti EU; the League is sharply xenophobic on the migrant issue.
While the Interim Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was more of Five Star nominee, the Finance Minister rejected by President Mattarella shared the League leader, Matteo Salvini’s anti-German bent. A growing anti-German sentiment is becoming part of Italy’s political rhetoric. Matteo Salvini pulls no punches on that score.
“German newspapers call us beggars, ungrateful, lazy, freeloaders and they want us to choose a Finance Minister they like.”
Alessandro Gilioli, Deputy Editor in Chief of the influential L’Espresso, was candid. He thought that the Leader of the Five Star, Luigi Di Maio, who never sought a Euro exit, would have been amenable to a compromise even in the first round negotiations with President Mattarella last week. But Di Maio could not have stuck his neck out with a softer line on Europe: That would have been a huge advantage to the League. An almighty competition in radicalism is on between unlikely competitors.
President Mattarella, a Europhile, acting under heaven knows what impulse or pressure, invited a 64-year-old IMF official Carlo Cottarelli to become Interim Prime Minister. This was like a red rag to the Five Star-League bull. Mattarella came under further pressure to reverse the decision which would have given the coalition a formula to grow exponentially in the next elections.
An even more muscular, menacing combination of Five Star and the League would be, in the perception of Brussels, not the medicine that the doctor had ordered for Italy, the world and certainly for the EU, which is still reeling from the Brexit blow and looking at disturbing developments in Spain. An Itexit would be a disaster of unimaginable proportions. So all the world’s establishments leaned on the President to open up consultations which have resulted in the reappointment of Conte. The compromise is: Conte minus Savona. What is being attempted in Italy is to delay the day of reckoning — when People disgusted with established parties will install their representatives whom the rulers continue to call Populist.
Consider what happened in Spain. In 2015, Pablo Iglesias, with his communist portfolio, riding a crest of Podemos (Yes We Can, echoes of Obama’s first campaign) burst upon the Spanish scene on a platform to get rid of Rajoy, noted for corruption even then.
Look how Rajoy managed to stay on until the latest vote. The stop-gap Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez of the declining socialist party standing on rotten stilts will fall sooner rather than later. Will that be the end of the Establishment in Spain? As an insurance, a Centre-Right youth party, Ciudadanos, Citizen’s Party, has been floated successfully, borrowing Podemos’s aesthetics. Its leader, Albert Rivera, has boosted his image on a nationalist platform opposing Catalan independence.
Remember also how the world’s progressive groups had built castles in the air when Alexis Tsipras of Greek communists, Syriza, promised the utopia where “austerity” will be forever banished? Today he is a contented poodle in the German lap.
But the new turn in European affairs seems to suggest that Tsipras too might be a nine days wonder. In fact, Yanis Varoufakis, the former Finance Minister, whom he sacked under German and EU pressure, has resurrected himself on the platform which Tsipras discarded. On Mattarella’s initial undemocratic action, Varoufakis was scathing. “By grounding their candidate for Finance, you have given a fantastic gift to populist forces.”
“You said nothing when the League leader Salvini named himself the Minister for Interior, when he was committed to throwing out 5,00,000 immigrants?”
During the Cold war, Christian Democrats were kept in power by the entire Western alliance. Italy at this period had a much loved Communist party which, paradoxically, was considered a taboo for power — at least while the Soviets were around. Soviet collapse, by that token, deprived the CD of its blackmail card to stay in power.
Italy’s conscientious judges, who had held their fire for fear of unsettling a system which had served as a bulwark against the global Left, now began to investigate the corruption in which the Italian power structure was sunk neck deep. From 1992 onwards, hundreds of politicians, civil servants, businessmen went to jail for brazen corruption.
When Berlusconi became Italy’s Prime Minister in 1994, he owned every TV channel. Naturally, the media backed him to the hilt during his subsequent spells in power. Over a decade ago, a comedian Beppe Grillo started a blog to engage young people on basic issues like technology, water, pollution, unemployment, economic distress. Italians, suffocated by Berlusconi’s self-serving media monopoly, built an internet revolution on the platform created by Grillo’s blog. This is the platform on which the current alternative Italian political structure is being erected.
There may be differences in detail, but Europe these days is convulsed by two currents fiercely opposed to each other: People’s Power, from the Left and the Right (disparagingly named “Populism”), is out to dethrone the established order. Until the other day this order seemed invincible: The Establishment had many instruments in its toolkit. But developments in Spain suggest that the seemingly invulnerable are running out of steam. Change and status quo are in conflict on an unprecedented scale.
(A senior cmmenator on political and diplomatic affairs, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed are personal)