The Italian government's doomed quest for stability

When the only thing holding a coalition together is fear of the voters, instability is just around the corner. 

The Letta government in Palazzo Chigi in Rome. Demtix/Simona Granati. All rights reserved.The Letta government in Palazzo Chigi in Rome. Demtix/Simona Granati. All rights reserved.

Italy’s brave attempt at forming a new government has been facing severe and growing difficulties from the very beginning. The effort is haunted, above all, by two separate problems, each of which could bring about the government’s early downfall. There are two “ghosts” at the banquet who appear determined - and capable - to ruin the party. On the one hand, the event appears dominated by a particularly burdensome and unwelcome “Convitato di Pietra” (the “stone guest” at Don Juan’s dinner table) in the form of Beppe Grillo’s powerful “Five Star Movement”, while, on the other hand it is easy to spot an even more insidious and dangerous threat, posed by the internal instability which has led to this improbable motley crew of personalities and ideologies. The resulting political compromise could autodestruct at any time.

Judging by the prevailing international media reports, Italians should be basking in the prospect of newly found political stability. But a more realistic vision would suggest a very different picture.

True, a government has been formed and granted a massive vote of confidence by both houses of the Italian parliament, led by the youngest Prime Minister in the Republic’s history. The calumet of peace is apparently being shared among previously warring factions, some very respected technical figures have been placed at the head of key economic ministries and the government has the largest female presence in the history of the country. The euphoria – albeit cautious – exhibited by the markets and by some of the leading international media, however, does not appear to be shared by public opinion in Italy. Italians are perhaps ready to acknowledge the brave effort undertaken by Prime Minister Enrico Letta, but they are also aware that this brilliant spectacle is marred by the presence of what could be best described as the shadow of disaster, a true Phantom of the Opera, lurking in the beautiful, historic houses of Parliament, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness.

The term “Convitato di Pietra” refers to the cumbersome presence of a dinner guest such as the Commendatore’s statue in Don Juan – most notably in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. In this case, it is the political class that feels an uncomfortable presence: that of the largest political party to emerge from this February's election, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which has incongruously, and some would say undemocratically, been relegated to the opposition. Its presence is certainly unwelcome, uncomfortable and potentially fatal, even though M5S does not, by itself, represent the greatest danger to the government's stability – that would be the intrinsic lack of coherence of the government.

The experiment of a “Grand Coalition”, more or less on the German model (the first such attempt in Italy since 1947), has been much talked about and described as the only possible solution to the political impasse. Some basic historic misinterpretations however have been brought into play, either wilfully or through a superficial grasp of history. The post-war coalition – between the Christian Democrats and the Communists – has been much quoted as an example of working together in times of crisis, and, indeed, Italy's democratic republican Constitution owes its existence to that moment of joint endeavour. The situation, however, was totally different then, and the two sides were adversaries but not enemies: indeed. Many of them had struggled, even fought, on the same side against Fascism, and, of course, the “opposition” – i.e. the Fascists – were seen as a defeated enemy and not part of any political set-up or alliance. Historical parallels are tempting to draw, but they can be dangerously deceptive.

The Letta government therefore, newly born as it is, already shows serious structural faults, and these initial, apparently minor cracks in the show of unity appear bound to widen into irremediable rifts.

The fact is that the apparent unity, as well as the vast majority obtained in the initial votes of confidence, are primarily based not so much on the desire to give the country a much needed leadership as, instead, on the evident fear, shared by the three leading coalitions (Former Prime Minister Monti’s centrist coalition has to be added to the two principal players), of having to face the electorate again, as would be inevitable if either Berlusconi’s centre right or the beleaguered, perhaps hopelessly weakened centre left led by the Democratic Party, should find it impossible to continue in what is basically a charade of political cooperation.

The most dangerous paradox to emerge from the situation is that the Democratic Party finds itself to be heading a government bent on fulfilling many of Mr Berlusconi’s campaign promises, and almost none of those which gave the Democratic Party itself victory – fragile though it was – in the polls. The paradox can be labelled dangerous because the Democratic Party’s electorate has already been showing signs of disquiet, and could well provoke a definite internal split, separating the two main currents which were never quite able to coexist comfortably, the “Catholic” faction against the more left-wing bloc which includes many former Communists.

The situation is further complicated by the sidelined but vociferous presence of Beppe Grillo’s Movement – which could well end up reaping the advantages of having kept clear of the dubious, presumably unsavoury intrigues which have led to the formation of this coalition. At the moment, Grillo actually serves a useful purpose, and his presence and popularity are used, with the almost unanimous support of the media, as a means to persuade sceptics, both at home and abroad, that this government constitutes the only means to prevent Italy’s sliding into a “populist nightmare”. To this effect Grillo’s movement is continually being paraded as an Italian equivalent of UKIP, Golden Dawn or other far right populist movements in Europe - but the comparison is unjustified, and completely misleading.

The prevailing sentiment of fear within the members of the coalition is certainly justified by the latest opinion polls. Should elections be held in the very near future, it appears that the centre right (i.e. Berlusconi) would come out on top but with a limited majority, making it impossible for it to form a government, while the M5S, although perhaps losing a few votes, would still emerge as the largest single political party. The centre left, narrowly victorious in the last elections, would be the biggest losers, relegated to third place: in other words, a dramatic repetition of the current situation with a reversal of the roles played by its most important components and, as an additional negative prospect, growing abstention.

It is, therefore, fear - and only fear - which keeps the coalition going, and a democracy in which the governing parties live and act in fear of the electorate shows concerning signs of fragility.

It is to be expected therefore that even should the present formula survive, all of its energies will be concentrated on keeping the “Grand Coalition” alive, with little or no forceful action taken to address the immense problems which currently are causing unrest and growing anger in the population.

About the author

Carlo Ungaro is a former Italian diplomat. He spent sixteen years serving in Afghanistan.  Between 2000 and 2007, he served as political adviser to the Italian led ISAF forces in Herat