Italy succumbs to the forces of populism with voters increasingly attracted to leaders railing against the establishment.

The former British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, once said that “a week is a long time in politics”. 

To judge by the events of the past week, it might be said of Italian politics that a day is a long time: the period since the March elections has seen endless attempts, in vain, to form government, and in recent days the seemingly likely outcome of these attempts has changed every 24 hours. 

On Monday, it was clear that no arrangement between the Democratic Party (PD) and Luigi Di Maio’s Five-star Movement (M5S) was going to be possible, and the president was preparing to appoint someone to lead a non-party executive. On Tuesday the most likely outcome looked like fresh elections. By Wednesday it was clear that in all probability we were going to get an executive sustained in office by the M5s and the League. 

By the weekend the anti-establishment M5S and the far-right League had agreed a tentative populist coalition and now look set to pick a prime minister. 

The impasse had arisen thanks to the fact that the elections had left none of the three major parties or party coalitions—the centre-left PD and allies; the centre-right, including the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI); the M5S—with an overall majority in Parliament, or with any real desire to cooperate with any other party.

On the one hand, the M5S, an anti-establishment and populist formation—a catch-all entity garnering support from across the left-right spectrum—had emerged as the single largest party. With 35 percent of the Chamber of Deputies seats, it was aware that though not large enough to sustain itself in office on its own, its size made it too large to be excluded, and it claimed the premiership on this basis. 

Splits on the right 

But M5S was unwilling to cooperate with the centre right if that meant accommodating Berlusconi’s party. The FI, despite Berlusconi's own initial populism, had come to symbolise the corrupt establishment. Allying with FI would taint M5S' supposed struggle against the establishment, which is what gave the M5S a large part of its raison d’etre.

The centre right was the largest coalition with 42 percent of the seats. And if Berlusconi was unwilling to cooperate with the M5S, fearing conflict of interest legislation damaging to him personally, then League leader Matteo Salvini was also reluctant to cooperate if this risked rupture with Berlusconi. 

With 20 percent of the seats, Salvini was strong enough to form a ‘populist majority’ with the M5S. But defying Berlusconi carried the risk of appearing disloyal and unreliable as a political ally; it looked likely to place in jeopardy the governing arrangements he had with the entrepreneur in several important municipalities; and playing ‘second fiddle’ to a Di Maio-led government meant putting at risk what the election outcome itself had revealed, namely, that FI was now a spent force and that the League was well placed, at some point in the future, to ‘inherit’ what remained of its electoral support.

This placed the spotlight firmly on the PD with 18 percent of the seats. The policy differences with the centre right, on key issues such as pensions, immigration, taxation and Europe, were simply too vast for it to be able to contemplate an arrangement with a coalition that included the radical-right represented by Salvini, while an arrangement that was confined to the more moderate Berlusconi did not command a majority. 

The prospect of a coalition with the PD party leader Matteo Renzi, and his followers, who were bitterly opposed to such an eventuality given their essentially top-down, majoritarian and technocratic perspective on politics proved short lived.

It was not an attractive proposition being in coalition with a party that professed a belief in participatory democracy and wanted to undo many of the outgoing government’s key measures such as the Jobs Act and the Buona Scuola education reform; that would benefit from the media profile, and heightened capacity for leadership, enjoyed by prime ministers in recent years; that might blame any policy failures on its junior partner.

On the other side stood Renzi’s internal opponents who, saw in the prospects of an arrangement with the M5S the opportunity to ‘domesticate’ it and to shift the ‘centre of gravity’ of Italian politics to the left. 

Such critics were driven by assumptions that had dominated the politics of the major Italian parties prior to the 1990s – that the democratic game was less about the construction of majorities and the principle of ‘winner takes all’, than it was about the pursuit of power through negotiation and the search for workable compromises.

Driven by the thought that, through such a compromise, the pursuit of a left-of-centre agenda offered the best prospects of addressing the multiple insecurities faced by ordinary people and so countering the growth in Europe of populism which elsewhere had led to constitutional crises – most notably in the UK, with Brexit – and now looked as though it might just do so in Italy too unless the government crisis could be resolved.

Fragility of the state

A proposal by the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to appoint a technocratic government was derided by the League and M5S who threatened to bring it down through their combined forces at the confirmatory vote of confidence which all incoming governments must succeed in winning.

But fresh elections were also risky. They would undermine the authority of the Presidency, one of the few remaining public institutions with any real strength. The parties were short of funds following the March campaign. 

There was no certainty, in the absence of agreement on a new electoral law, that fresh elections would do anything other than simply reproduce the already-existing stalemate. 

All parties might, in fresh elections, be penalised to one degree or another by a public perception that they had spent the period since 4 March fiddling while Rome burned; for the absence of a government backed by a parliamentary majority would make it impossible to address several pressing matters – especially in the areas of taxation and finance – and severely weaken Italy’s negotiating position in international arenas.

The result, on 9 May, was to shift the spotlight of public debate firmly onto Berlusconi, placing him under enormous pressure to stand aside and allow an M5S-League coalition to take off. Such a coalition was now more attractive to Salvini since when, on 6 May, Di Maio had indicated a willingness to forego the premiership for himself in order to make a take-off possible. 

Berlusconi had been backed into a corner as the player on whose moves everything now depended. Refusing to step aside meant that he above anyone else would be blamed for the failure to resolve the crisis. His party would in all probability be reduced to the small change of Italian politics in the event of fresh elections. At the age of 81 he risked a revolt on the part of followers aware that their survival as parliamentarians was in jeopardy.

A false dawn in Italian politics

After more than two months of brinkmanship, then, the government crisis looks as though it has finally been resolved with Berlusconi emerging as the clear loser. But from the perspective of Italian democracy generally, the crisis may only just be beginning. 

The declining significance of traditional social cleavages and of the parties of mass integration; the mediatisation and personalisation of politics; the uncontrollable forces of globalisation. All these have left a mass of detached, dissatisfied and volatile voters attracted by the promises of populist leaders railing against the establishment. And yet populist leaders seem almost bound to fail simply because of the sheer enormity of the public expectations they arouse. 

On taxes, welfare, pensions and immigration, all of the most high-profile of the campaign promises of the League and the M5S fly in the face of a record level of public debt and all of the other myriad constraints involved in sound economic management. 

Looking back on the events of the past two months, one might be tempted to say, “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”

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