World News

Italy’s Populist Parties Agree on a Common Agenda to Govern

Posted May 18, 2018 8:27 p.m. EDT
Updated May 18, 2018 8:28 p.m. EDT

ROME — After more than two months of political deadlock, Italian populist parties announced Friday that they had agreed on a common platform for governing that would allow them to push ahead with a potentially budget-breaking and anti-immigration agenda that seeks to adjust Italy’s relationship with Europe.

The document diluted some of the most antagonistic policies toward the European Union that were leaked in an earlier draft agreement and rattled Italy’s financial markets this week.

But it nonetheless preserved the core of the populist promises that won the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the hard-right League party 50 percent of the vote in inconclusive March elections.

Both parties said they will now put the document before their bases for approval. But the most important vote will be that of President Sergio Mattarella, who has the authority to block the formation of the government if he believes it is unconstitutional.

Mattarella has reportedly been concerned that the populist government could further unbalance Italy’s budget and break its international treaties. The parties will next need to agree on a choice for prime minister, which is also subject to Mattarella’s approval.

The party leaders — Matteo Salvini, 45, for the League and Luigi Di Maio, 31, for Five Star — are likely to meet with the president to seek his approval early next week.

With that clearly in mind, the document, titled “Contract for a Government of Change,” seems intended to walk a fine line between appeasing Mattarella’s concerns while throwing enough red meat of populist programs to the parties’ supporters.

Even so, there is no guarantee that, once in power, the parties will not revert to the anti-European agenda that seems closer to their heart.

“It’s not binding,” said Michele Ainis, a professor of constitutional law at Roma Tre University. “Whatever they do after can be different, can be more or less radical.”

It was the prospect of a changed, and more adversarial, relationship between Italy and Europe that shook markets this week.

In Friday’s final agreement, the parties set aside a previous desire to return to status quo before the European Union treaty that set the stage for the euro.

The final agreement instead emphasized that they wanted to “review the structure of European economic governance” and return to the original spirit of the union, which is now “asymmetric, based on the dominance of the market rather than the broader social and economic dimension.”

The 57-page document covered areas from public water to defense and from sports to the safeguarding of animals, from countering the Mafia to boosting Italian fishermen and farmers.

More innovatively, it included a promise that each party would support the priorities of the other in Parliament and called for the establishment of a reconciliation committee to iron out eventual differences.

An earlier iteration of such a committee, which foresaw a mix of private citizens and lawmakers, struck many observers as unconstitutional. They believed it created the potential of unelected power brokers operating in a shadow Cabinet, an arrangement that for some critics evoked the Grand Council of Fascism during Mussolini’s reign.

Analysts also said the agreement’s section on conflict of interest maintained the status quo, meaning that it was unlikely to worry Silvio Berlusconi, the media mogul and former prime minister, who is an ally of Salvini.

The document also failed to address directly the role of Davide Casaleggio, a web consultant and Five Star power broker whose Milan office houses the web platform where the Five Star Movement’s voting activity takes place.

The agreement also reflected the Five Star Movement’s disdain for members of Parliament switching parties out of personal convenience and ambition.

Critics, while allowing that the party switching is often unsavory, have nevertheless called the proposal a grave threat to Italy’s representative democracy. They argue that such a rule could lead to demands that lawmakers vote in sync with their party, and that it strips the lawmakers of the ability to vote their conscience, thus putting loyalty to the party above loyalty to the Republic.

The Five Star Movement, which has little reverence for Italy’s representative democracy and advocates for direct democracy through clicks on the web, seeks to impose a fine of more than 100,000 euros, about $118,000, on lawmakers who leave the party after election.

On Friday, the leaders of the two parties did their best to put a smiling face, at times literally, on the document as they began reassuring their respective bases.

“Days and nights of work, many points from the program of the League and the center-right in this ‘Government Contract,'” Salvini wrote on Twitter, with a smiling emoticon.

“Enough of the lies from the newspapers and TV, here is the reality: Do you like it??” he added.

Salvini said that his party will set up “gazebos” in piazzas around the country where League members can vote on whether to approve the agreement.

Five Star’s Di Maio also put forward a happy face.

“I’m really happy,” he said in a Facebook video to his supporters Friday morning. To inspirational music and footage from the campaign trail, Di Maio said the contract “bonds two political forces that are and will remain alternative” and who would keep their promises. The program addressed the concerns of young people “of my generation,” the 31-year-old said, urging his party’s members to “read this document and feel part of the wave of change that’s about to smash against the hopes of those who want things to stay as they are.”

Five Star campaigned heavily on a universal basic citizens’ income, a pie-in-the-sky proposal that was nonetheless critical to its resounding success in the country’s economically disadvantaged south.

But on closer inspection, the proposal in the agreement seemed more like a traditional unemployment benefit tied to job searches and the means of the recipient.

The program was not exactly the picture of fiscal conservatism.

The Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milan issued a budgetary assessment of the proposals, estimating their cost at as much as 125 billion euros. The parties, according to the university study, cut only 500 million euros in spending to cover those costs.

Echoing Salvini’s remarks a day earlier, Di Maio also took a disdainful tone toward the foreign news media (The Financial Times this week compared the new alliance to “barbarians” inside Rome’s gates).

He mocked the potential repercussions of the alliance’s plans, including on the spread between German and Italian bond yields. He said that if his party’s members gave an online green light for him to sign the document, he would sign, “despite the spread.”

To boost support for the agreement in the web-native party, Di Maio signed off by telling his membership that they should “feel proudly Italian today because a new era is about to start.” Before that era started, though, Di Maio needed the party members to vote yes on the Five Star’s Rousseau web platform. The necessity of such a vote had been made clear last week during remarks made in the Senate by Casaleggio, the son of the party’s late co-founder.

Critics say Casaleggio’s role is indicative of the party’s secretive, top-down power structure and that Di Maio would not have gotten to this stage in the political negotiations if Casaleggio were not already on board, rendering any vote on the agreement a fait accompli.

On Friday night, Di Maio announced on his party’s blog that 94 percent of the 44,000 people who voted Friday chose to support the agreement.

“Does it seem like a dream to you,” Di Maio said. “It’s a dream come true.”