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Italy has a new populist government — and a new constitutional headache

In Italy, anti-establishment parties the 5-Star Movement and right-wing League have revived coalition plans, ending three months of political uncertainty. (Video: Reuters)
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Italy’s convoluted political crisis has finally reached an endpoint. On June 1, the country has a new government supported by the Five Star Movement and the Lega, and led by a “neutral” prime minister with no previous political experience: a lawyer and academic named Giuseppe Conte. The steps leading to government formation give important insights on the evolution of the Italian political system — and indeed on the evolution of European democracies.

Here’s what just happened. In Italy’s March 4 general elections, no party won a clear parliamentary majority. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), with 32.7 percent of the votes, won the most votes. The other big winner was the Lega (which recently dropped “Nord” from its name), a far-right populist party included in a broader rightist coalition, with 17.4 percent.

Building a coalition government proved difficult

After endless negotiations, these two parties finally reached agreement on May 23 to form a coalition government led by Giuseppe Conte.

Three days afterward, Italian President Sergio Mattarella vetoed the coalition’s choice of finance minister. Mattarella opposed the appointment of Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old economist, former minister of industry in the Ciampi cabinet (1993-1994) and a board member with a number of important Italian banks and companies. Mattarella cited concerns about Savona’s Euroskeptic views and the risks for stability.

It might seem strange that in a parliamentary democracy, the president of the republic has a say in appointing a key cabinet member. This would not be possible, for instance, in Germany or Spain, where prime ministers appoint their ministers directly.

Not all parliamentary systems are created equal

In Italy, the president of the republic holds considerable powers that play out in the process of government formation. In particular, Article 92 of Italy’s Constitution spells out that the president “appoints the President of the Council of Ministers, and on his proposal, the Ministers.” This means that no ministers can be appointed if the two parts do not reach an agreement.

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This isn’t merely a formal power, as confirmed several times by Mattarella’s predecessors. Most notably, in 1994, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi had to turn down his proposed minister of justice, Cesare Previti, who happened to be his personal lawyer. Previti was instead appointed defense minister.

A similar event unfolded in the second Berlusconi government in 2001; and again in 2014, when the government of Matteo Renzi was formed. These are the publicized cases — it’s likely other disputes were resolved privately behind the closed doors of the president’s office. So what is different this time? There are two ways to look at this issue.

Why is this creating a potential constitutional crisis now?

From the constitutional point of view, Mattarella justified his veto on the basis of Savona’s explicit support for a plan for Italy to leave the euro — a view he expressed repeatedly in recent years. This could effectively create a self-fulfilling prophecy: If investors believe Italy’s key economic official wants Italy to abandon the euro, they will not buy Italian bonds, for fear of being repaid in a less valuable currency. This, in turn, will create a financial crisis in Italy and force the country out of the euro zone.

In this light, by preventing this scenario, Mattarella has acted in the defense of the broader national interest. Keeping Italy and its bond market stable, he stated he was defending Italians’ savings from possible market speculations.

But Mattarella’s actions prompted previous members of the Constitutional Court — the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court — to contest the president’s power to veto a ministerial appointment because of a candidate’s political views. By doing so, critics argue, the president implicitly determines the policy orientation of the incoming government.

Mattarella countered by stating that a decision with such profound implications as leaving the common currency cannot be taken “stealthily” through the appointment of an anti-euro minister. If a party has this goal, it should state so openly and seek a popular mandate on the matter.

And there’s a broader political explanation

Mattarella suggested replacing Savona with a Lega frontbencher. So why did the party leader refuse this offer — and instead challenged Mattarella, trying to force him appointing Savona?

One possible answer lies with the populist nature of both parties. This might be why they refused to listen to the views and authority of an “unelected” official — the Italian president of the republic is indirectly elected by the parliament — when it contrasts with the “will of the people” they represent.

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This may explain the improvised response of M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, who called for the president to be impeached. Di Maio withdrew the cry 24 hours later.

Di Maio’s response is untenable from a constitutional point of view — but understandable as an attempt to frame the failure to form a government as a conflict between the bearers of the popular will and the establishment, backed by the European financial technocrats. The opposition between the “people” and the “establishment” is the core issue in the communication strategy European of populist parties and leaders, and the M5S and the Lega are no exception.

What does this episode teach us, beyond the unpredictable short-term outcomes of the Italian crisis? An extensive political science literature, and my own research on the M5S, suggests that the success of populist parties will have broader implications on constitutional matters.

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For M5S and Lega, there may be political rewards to ignoring the long-standing role of neutral actors, like the president of the republic, describing them as obstacles to the full representation of the will of the people. This type of frame is not entirely new to Italian politics. Berlusconi has often taken this approach, especially in his early political career, to attack the president of the republic, the Constitutional Court, and the judiciary. Outside Italy, Hungary and Poland are witnessing similar dynamics.

Italy is now proceeding with a populist coalition. During this complicated crisis, President Mattarella has reaffirmed that he will not interpret his constitutional role in a restrictive way. In the long run, though, what is at stake is the very nature of the representative process and the balance between a “populist” and a “constitutional” interpretation of democracy in Italy, and possibly in Europe.

Filippo Tronconi is associate professor of political science at the University of Bologna, Italy. He is the editor of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. Organisation, Communication and Ideology (Routledge, 2015). He tweets at @FilippoTronconi.