June 2 was the Festa della Repubblica Italiana—the anniversary of the day in 1946 when Italians voted in a referendum for a republic over a discredited monarchy. This June 2 was also the day that Italians learned, almost three months after their election, that they finally had a coalition government and would not have to go back to the polls this summer. Just a week earlier the populist politicians who formed this coalition had threatened to impeach the president of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, for rejecting their choice of finance minister. Now, somewhat awkwardly, Mattarella was hosting these same politicians at the Quirinal Palace and giving their new government his official blessing.
Most legal experts agree that the president was well within the bounds of his constitutional powers when he refused to allow the anti-Euro economist Paolo Savona to head the Ministry of Economy and Finance (something like this had happened before). Mattarella’s refusal forced the leaders of the two parties that were trying to form a government—the League’s Matteo Salvini and the Five Star Movement’s Luigi DiMaio—to come up with a new list of ministers. Finally, on May 31, Mattarella gave them the green light. The new prime minister is Giuseppe Conte, a little-known fifty-four-year-old lawyer and law professor with no real political leverage of his own. He was chosen by the League and the Five Star Movement to mediate between them.
This is an important moment in the history of Italy and the rest of Europe; it is the first time parties opposed to the European Union have taken over the government of one of its founding member states. The League (which used to be called the Northern League) has been known since the 1980s for its xenophobic views. It has received advice from former Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon, who has been spending a lot of time in Italy lately, hosting political events and giving interviews about Italy’s role in the struggle against liberal “globalism.” The center-left Democratic Party that ran the country until recently is now totally marginalized, divided from within and unsure how to proceed as an opposition party.
The new government has been described in the Western press as “populist,” which is a notoriously equivocal term. After all, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been called “populists.” The binding agreement between the League and the Five Star Movement is a “contract” that promises a firm line against EU-enforced austerity measures, which populist leftwing parties throughout Western Europe also oppose. But the contract also promises to protect Italy from multiculturalism, religious pluralism, and immigration. The old neo-fascist movement, a party called Fratelli d’Italia, is not part of this coalition government, but their views are well represented in the new cabinet.
The Five Star Movement, which began online, wants to replace the representative democracy of Italy’s parliamentary system with a direct democracy. Its real leaders are its founders rather than the candidates it runs for office. Five Star has a Rousseauian idea of the ordinary Italian citizen as a “bon sauvage” damaged and humiliated by corrupt political institutions. Its message is: get rid of the political class, let the people decide, and all will be well.
But the real power in this coalition government belongs to the League, whose Catholic identitarian politics is just a cover for Islamophobia. When it was still the Northern League in the 1990s, the party flirted with neo-paganism and anti-Semitism. The League’s leader, Salvini, will be minister of the interior in the new government and promises to get tough with the European Union and crack down on immigration. In 2017 he signed a political alliance with the party of Vladimir Putin. The new government’s “contract” includes a racist proposal to remove Roma and Gypsy children—and only Roma and Gypsy children—from their families if they are not being sent to school, a plan ominously reminiscent of the fascist racial laws of 1938. The contract also promises to limit the religious liberty of Muslims in Italy in a way that is clearly unconstitutional.