Italian government collapses after the right turns chaos into crisis
In this May 18, 2019 file photo, Italian far-right leader and interior minister Matteo Salvini, center is surrounded on stage by leaders of other European right-wing nationalist parties at a rally in Milan. From left, Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, Salvini, Jorg Meuthen, leader of the Alternative For Germany party, and Marine Le Pen, head of France's National Front. | Luca Bruno / AP

Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister Matteo Salvini has effectively forced Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign from office in a scheme aimed at elevating his extremist right-wing Northern League party to power and installing himself in the premier’s office.

Conte, a political independent who has headed a coalition between Salvini’s League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement since June 2018, resigned on Tuesday. In an hour-long speech in the Italian Senate, with Salvini sitting next to him, Conte berated the League leader for undermining the government from within.

Salvini has been pushing for new elections for weeks, convinced that the League can capitalize on public anger with European Union fiscal policies and deploy an anti-immigrant platform as a wedge to secure votes. He has said the coalition is no longer functional and claims only a new vote can break the logjam.

The Open Arms rescue ship arrives on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, southern Italy, Aug. 20, 2019. | Salvatore Cavalli / AP

It is now up to Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella to decide whether new elections should be called 3 ½ years early or a different constellation of parties in parliament can be cobbled together to govern. Though Salvini initially looked set to get his wish, the center-left opposition Democratic Party announced Wednesday night that it was in talks with Five Star to replace the Conte government with one that would block Salvini and the League.

The possibility shocked political watchers in Italy because it was precisely the failure of the Democrats and Five Star to reach agreement after the March 2018 elections that allowed the League to consolidate its position as a Five Star governing partner. The possibility that new elections could hand power to Salvini and an extreme right government appears to have pushed the old rivals to revisit cooperation with one another.

Showdown over migrant ship

The immediate point of contention between Salvini’s League on one side and Conte and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio on the other was over how to deal with a migrant ship stranded off the Italian coast. It was floating in Italian territorial waters for 19 days with over a hundred people aboard. Conditions on the boat were getting desperate, and at least 15 people were seen jumping overboard in an attempt to swim ashore.

Oscar Camps, the founder of the Open Arms migrant justice NGO which owns the ship, stated on Tuesday, “[We’re] confined in an iron box for 18 days, rationed water, rationed food…the situation begins to resemble that of a Libyan detention center but in Italian waters.”

A court ordered the government to allow the ship to dock. Conte pushed his interior minister to follow the court’s decision, but Salvini refused. He closed all Italian ports to the ship, saying, “I’m not afraid; I’m proud to defend the borders and security of my country.” A Sicilian prosecutor intervened, ordering the ship’s seizure on Tuesday night and evacuating its passengers, thus ending the standoff.

The fight over the migrant ship followed a split between the League and Five Star earlier this month over the building of a high-speed train between Turin, Italy, and Lyon, France. The League favors it, but with Italy under pressure to pass a budget and present it to European officials in the fall, Five Star remained reluctant about the cost.

EU fiscal squeeze fuels the right

The battles over the stranded ship and the rail line are episodes in a much bigger crisis gripping Italian society. The European Commission, which is following a hardline policy laid out by Germany and the big banks of Europe, is threatening Italy with disciplinary measures if it doesn’t cut public spending and start slashing government debt.

Along with countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, Italy was one of those hardest hit when the financial crisis exploded a decade ago. In its aftermath, one round of austerity after another was visited upon Italian workers, who saw public services cut, wages freeze, and jobs vanish.

Though the last decade has been particularly difficult, economist Servaas Storm argues that Italy has been subjected to a harsh model of neoliberal capitalism for at least 30 years—ever since joining the Eurozone with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992. Citing what he calls “Italy’s permanent crisis,” Storm says that unions were blamed for inflation and targeted in the 1990s. Protections for workers were significantly weakened through the 2000s and industry was deregulated. Together, such policies raised the profit share going to Italian companies and saw wage growth stall.

The policy eventually backfired for Italian capital, however. Aggregate demand dropped as workers’ pay froze or slipped downward, thus weakening the Italian economy overall relative to other major European manufacturing powers like Germany and France. By the time the financial crisis broke in 2008-09, Italy’s fiscal situation was already significantly weakened. With the state stripped of resources and money having flowed to capital for years, what started as a crisis in the big banks quickly engulfed the whole economy.

The European Union’s response to the crisis in Italy—the enforcement of major public spending cuts, pension reform, and the elimination of public sector jobs—only made things worse. As in other countries, such policies are fueling public anger toward the EU and providing openings for far-right leaders like Salvini. He rails against the EU and blames immigration for the troubles Italian workers face. In Trump-like manner, he says only an “Italians First” movement can turn things around.

An alternative?

Even if the Democratic Party and Five Star do manage to form a coalition to block Salvini and the far-right, their resulting government will not be a progressive one necessarily. In the recent period, the populist promises of Five Star and the League led to some increases of public spending, but the EU has signaled it will not allow that trend to continue.

Whoever ends up in power, they will face massive pressure from the European Commission to cut tens of billions of euros from the 2020 budget, raise taxes on the population, or both. Although the Democrats and Five Star may initially prevent Salvini from becoming prime minister, continuing to follow the EU-mandated fiscal model will only escalate support for his party and other right-wing forces.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, emerging from a ban on holding public office after a tax fraud conviction, is also angling to again be premier. The conservative billionaire, who controls most Italian media outlets, is marketing himself to big business interests as the best guarantee against abandoning the euro or EU fiscal policy.

Metalworkers applaud during a demonstration “Future for Industry” to demand the government and businesses to focus on work, industry, wages, and labor rights, in Milan, June 14, 2019. | Luca Bruno / AP

Without a serious break from austerity and the formation of an alternative policy that benefits workers while also fighting racism and xenophobia, the anti-immigrant populist right will continue to grow across Europe. The ideologically incoherent Five Star Movement will certainly not produce such a proposal.

The center-left Democratic Party, which traces its roots to the old Italian Communist Party (PCI), has been riven by internal factional wars for years and is unlikely to produce a credible anti-austerity alternative that can win public support. The party remains the major opposition force by default, the only social democratic option in a political scene dominated by right-wing parties of one variety or another.

As for the forces to the left of the Democrats, they too are divided and losing support. The two main successors of the PCI—the Communist Refoundation Party and the (modern) Italian Communist Party—participated in last year’s elections on a joint list with other anti-capitalist parties, but only garnered 1.1% of the vote and won no seats in parliament.

Should the Democrats and Five Star be able to form a coalition government, they will have blocked Salvini and the extreme right—but only for now.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.