Political crisis hits Italy right in the middle of the pandemic

Federico Tomasone

Right in the middle of this second wave of the pandemic, just ahead of the presentation of Italy’s recovery plan, a political crisis inside the government majority has deepened the current uncertainty. While it is hard to understand at first sight, there are reasons for the political crisis – and there is already a winner.


Long-standing tensions inside the majority

Ultimately, the cracks in the governing majority broke wide open. Tensions had been high in the government majority for months. The political crisis finally broke wide open on 13 January, with the resignation of the ministers for agriculture and equal opportunities, both from the Italia Viva party. Despite its small size, Italia Viva – the small party that emerged from Matteo Renzi’s split from the Partito Democratico in September 2019 – managed to hold the majority in check. The government majority coalition, formed by the Movimento Cinque Stelle, the Partito Democratico , Liberi e Uguali and Italia Viva, has a small majority in the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament. The loss of Italia Viva’s support in the Senate could undermine the government majority.

Matteo Renzi’s party has been putting particular pressure on the prime minister for months and there have been repeated calls to break up the government majority since December 2020. The core of the divergences has mainly focused on the recovery plan and on the activation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESMF) fund. With regard to the former, a partial agreement was reached after long negotiations on the allocation of the over €200 billion and the composition of the steering committee. With regard to the ESM fund, it proved impossible to overcome the divergences. For months, Renzi and Italia Viva – claiming the need for more funds and undermining the impact of the conditionality of the ESM fund – have been pressing pushing within the government for the fund to be activated. This decision was strongly opposed by the Movimento Cinque Stelle, albeit with discontinuity silently dropped by a growing part of the political parties.

The reactions inside the governing majority have been strongly negative. The prime minister, after accepting the resignation, said that Italia Viva was responsible and that it had harmed the country. The Movimento Cinque Stelle’s Di Maio expressed serious concerns and Partito Democratico leader Zingaretti call the initiation of the political crisis by Renzi at such a delicate time in the middle of the pandemic an act against the country. On the opposition side, Matteo Salvini’s far right Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d´Italia called for new elections, backed up more discreetly by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

What’s next? Various scenarios…

Following an informative initial consultation with the president of the republic, prime minister Conte decided to present the situation to parliament. For the time being, the government has a majority in the lower chamber of parliament but has not the numbers in the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament. Negotiations among the political parties lasted the whole weekend. According to the procedures and the indications of the president of the republic, the support for the majority must be expressed by political groups in parliament and not by endorsement of individual senators. So, informal negotiations started on the Thursday. In parliament, a new political group called MAIE-Italia23 was formed to gather supporters for the prime minister from among senators, not members of any other parliamentary group. Outside parliament, calls to forge a majority have been expressed by different voices. Beppe Grillo, cofounder of the Movimento Cinque Stelle, expressed the urgent need for unity in and responsibility by the MP´s of the Movimento Cinque Stelle´in an effort to get them to close ranks within their parliamentary group. An appeal signed by several organisations called for unity and responsibility with respect to defeating the pandemic and rebuilding the country. Even if some signs led one to believe in the formation of a majority in the Senate by the Tuesday, the games were still totally open and uncertain. If the prime minister does not achieve a majority, he should tender his resignation to the president of the republic; doing so would pave the way for various scenarios. In the first scenario, the head of state could refer prime minister Conte back to the Chamber to find support to build a new government with a new majority. In the second scenario, the president would give a different prime minister a mandate to find a majority in Parliament. The third scenario could be the formation of a technocratic government with multi-party support in Parliament to get the country through the pandemic crisis (names mentioned in this connection include Mario Dragi). The last scenario, considered very unlikely, would be to hold early general elections, most likely in June.

Inexplicable break?

While this is still difficult to explain given the dramatic situation, taking a closer look at the cracks in the political game through the prism of class relations can provide some explanations. The political attacks and pressure directed at Conte since the formation of his second government aim to systematically weaken his government and its room for manoeuvre. Far from being a truly progressive alliance, Conte’s second government has nevertheless been considered a disturbing anomaly by the ruling class. With respect to the budget bill, this government’s economic policy decisions are in keeping with the austerity policies imposed for quite some time in Italy and other EU countries. However, this government has also seen some discontinuity with the past. The government has had to keep some of the promises – even thought they are modest and totally inadequate – it made to the electorate, especially the Movimento Cinque Stelle, thus opening small breaches in the neo-liberal status quo and establishment positions in the country – an establishment that barely tolerates the small and insufficient form of redistribution or limitation of its own interests. The fact that the basic income (reddito di cittadinanza) has so far been maintained is a cause of friction with employer associations. Disagreements with the private operator during the renationalisation of the motorways have annoyed economic operators that are used to running state concessions at they see fit. Criticisms of the ESM fund have been perceived as an attempt at undermining the neoliberal order, and not just by the Italian ruling class. Naturally, even these timid changes cannot be tolerated by a ruling class that has grown accustomed to governing with little social conflict, paying little respect to popular consensus and most of all focusing only on its own interests. In all scenarios the political shift will reduce the margin for any sort of redistributive policy. The government scenarios, whether political or technocratic, will be a political shift to a more centrist conservative or even right-wing government with stronger ties to the establishment and more likely to focus on its own interests. At this time, with the perception of money flowing into the country, every segment of the ruling class is pulling strings to move closer to the governance of those funds. In this sense, every result emerging from the Senate will be first and foremost a victory for the establishment.

A victory built on sand

Yet this victory will be a short-term fix, and not only because the collateral effects of these political struggles is widening the gap between politics of the elites and the popular classes. The huge contradictions arising from the process of concentration of capital are still there. The deterioration of the economic and social infrastructure and consequent peripheralisation of the Italian economy with the explosion of social inequality, mass emigration and precarisation of a growing part of society are contradictions which have deeply eroded the country. The pandemic has brought to the fore all these contradictions that have been accumulating in Italian society for decades. Accelerated by the 2008 crisis, they have produced the now declining and to a certain extent ephemeral and aleatory anomaly of the Movimento Cinque Stelle. This time, with the acceleration imposed by the pandemic, one cannot rule out these imbalances putting enormous strain on the country’s stability. While conservative institutions, such as the Catholic Church, and temples of the economic orthodoxy, such as the IMF, recognise the need to change the paradigm, the Italian establishment is too blind, too arrogant or too weak to assume any really hegemonic leadership. In this sense it is equally clear that the voice of the popular classes is confused, fragmented and missing a counter-hegemonic strength. Yet this weakness does not invalidate the need for and the correctness of organising among the contradictions the ruling class is not able or willing to solve. Recomposing the class interests will necessarily take this long path requiring patience, stubbornness and skill. For the time being, one thing is clear: the money that flows in with the recovery plan is helping to reunite the wealthy classes and their most homogeneous political class. The establishment wants to gain control over any anomalous government, which might even cut across social classes (albeit marginally) and possibly be sensitive to the Pope’s calls for social justice. They want it all: money, absolution and ‘normalisation’.