Italy’s New Populist Government Articulates Vision, but Few Specifics
Posted June 5, 2018 8:48 p.m. EDT
Updated June 5, 2018 8:54 p.m. EDT
ROME — Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of Italy on Tuesday called his country’s new government proudly populist and anti-establishment as he outlined a sweeping, if unspecific, vision for overhauling its migration system, renegotiating its relationship with Europe and moving closer to Russia.
Conte said the new government “brought a radical change that we are proud of.”
The label populism, he said, fit “if populism is the attitude of the ruling class to listen to the people’s needs,” while the label anti-establishment fit “if anti-system means aiming at introducing a new system able to remove old privileges and encrusted power.”
Conte, a little-known lawyer whose debut on the national stage was met with a controversy about embellishment to his résumé, presented a laundry list of problems that the government would confront. They included the mafia; conflicts of interest; Italy’s slow health care system; its creaky, Byzantine bureaucracy; jobs; youth unemployment; pensions; the environment; brain drain; overtaxation; and just about every ill of Italian society.
But he offered few concrete details on how his government would realize the proposals in his speech, before a successful confidence vote in the Senate.
“As it is known, I don’t have any previous political experience,” Conte said. But he said that he took his responsibilities seriously and that he would put in place the populist agenda ironed out by the once-rival governing parties. Together they won about half the votes in the March 4 elections.
Conte will speak again before a confidence vote in the Lower House of Parliament on Wednesday, which is also a formality.
Flanked by his two powerful vice premiers from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League, Conte called himself “grateful” for their picking him as prime minister, and “renouncing their legitimate personal ambitions.”
It was not entirely clear who was the power behind the new government, but Conte stuck to the script in his first substantial speech to the country he now nominally leads.
He said the new government would be more attuned to the needs of the people through web-based tools of direct democracy, a key tenet of the Five Star Movement, which was born and developed on the web.
Parliament, an older model of representative democracy, “will also help us,” he said. Dressed elegantly in a dark suit, purple tie and white pocket kerchief, Conte looked like the father of the bride or a chief executive officer of a fashion house, but said his responsibility was to the voters “who live outside of these palaces.”
He lamented the sins of modern capitalism and inequality. He assured Italians — and international investors and nervous markets — that Italy, a founding member of the European Union, would stay in its “home,” and that leaving euro was “never in discussion.”
After his speech, Italian government bond prices fell, perhaps in reaction to Conte’s saying he was “confident of our negotiating power” with Brussels.
Italy, he said, will reduce its hulking public debt, but “we want to do it by increasing our wealth, not through the austerity measures that in recent years have allowed it to grow.”
Conte mostly avoided foreign affairs, other than to talk up the sanctity of Italy’s relationship with the United States and NATO, before adding: “Mind you! We’ll be the advocates of an opening towards Russia.” He said his government would support lifting sanctions on Russia, imposed after its incursion into Ukraine.
On Sunday in northern Italy, George Soros, the billionaire hedge fund manager and Democratic donor, accused Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, of receiving money from Russia. Soros offered no proof and Salvini — who is open about his admiration for President Vladimir Putin, and was once photographed in front of the Kremlin wearing a shirt with his face on it — has long denied the accusation.
Lifting Russian sanctions was one of the few solid proposals in the speech, so much so that Conte’s remark that “I won’t dwell on the details” prompted mocking grumbles in the opposition.
Conte also failed to shed light on how his government would go about keeping migrants out of Italy or expelling the ones already here.
He described his predecessors as failures, but, like the previous government, blamed Europe for leaving Italy alone to bear the brunt of the migration crisis. He said the bloc’s rules needed to change to make sure that the burden was more equally distributed.
He said recent conversations with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and recent comments by her, showed that Europe was getting the message. Conte reiterated a favorite campaign talking point that many of the aid groups and service companies operating within Italy’s immigration system were either corrupt or motivated by profit. “We will stop the immigration business that has grown disproportionately under the cover of fake solidarity,” he said.
That visibly pleased Salvini, the interior minister, who was sitting to Conte’s left.
Antagonism to migrants has been the main issue for Salvini. On Sunday, he visited a reception center in Sicily, saying “The good times for illegals are over — get ready to pack your bags.”
Speaking of migrants from Tunisia, he said that the migrants were not fleeing “wars, epidemics, famines or pestilence” and that the country “isn’t exporting gentlemen, it seems more often they’re exporting convicts.”
The comments prompted the Tunisian Foreign Ministry on Monday to summon the Italian ambassador to protest.
Over the weekend, shipwrecks killed more than 100 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea, and a legal migrant was gunned down in Calabria, prompting a backlash from migrants who said they were being exploited and even treated as slaves in Italy.
But Salvini did not slow down.
At a rally Monday outside Rome, he said, “Today I had a long and nice call with Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who wished us all the best and with whom we are going to change the rules of this European Union.”
Orban has cracked down on migrants and rolled back democratic norms in Hungary. In the Senate, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pointed out that much of the agenda seemed contradictory and unpaid for. He said that unlike Five Star and the League, his loyal opposition would not demonize its enemies on social networks because “we are different from you.”
He urged Salvini to remember that he now represented the country before offending migrants who crossed the desert and sea. He then turned his attention to Luigi Di Maio, the 31-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement, who sat on Conte’s right.
This weekend, a jubilant Di Maio exclaimed, “We are the state.”
“You are not the state, Vice President Di Maio,” Renzi said. “You are the power today and, in this respect, you are right that it is your turn. You no longer have alibis with respect to what you will do. You today are the power, the government, the establishment.”