On Monday, the two leaders of Italy's biggest populist parties — the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the ultranationalist League — will meet Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the hope of formalizing their ruling coalition. Huge questions remain about their official agenda, and it's not yet clear who will be tapped as the country's next prime minister — both Five Star leader Luigi di Maio and the League's Matteo Salvini have already ruled themselves out.
But no matter the details, the populists' ascension in Rome crystallizes a real danger for Europe's liberal establishment. Their joint platform offers an emphatic riposte to the edicts of Brussels, potentially threatens the integrity of the euro zone, promises a hard-line campaign against migrants and extends a hand of friendship to Moscow.
Western Europe's first fully populist government "would be eccentric, idealistic, tinged with xenophobia, intolerant of corruption and economically illiberal," declared the Economist. "If the two anti-establishment parties fail to agree, the outlook will be no less uncertain. It will mean either new elections, or a technocratic government lacking the authority to implement necessary reforms."
It was anger and disaffection with a succession of technocratic governments that delivered the two populist parties more than 50 percent of the vote in elections on March 4. The Five Star Movement — originally formed on a lark by an irreverent comedian — became the biggest party in the country with 37 percent of the vote, siphoning support from the imploding center-left. The League, a once-virulently racist regional party that has turned into a serious national player, surpassed expectations, outperforming its center-right allies led by former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Now, the populists intend to act boldly. Their proposed reforms include a guaranteed monthly income of close to $1,000 for poor families, tax cuts and a push against E.U.-mandated austerity measures. But it's not clear where the money for these programs will come from, and European officials fear that tens of billions of euros in additional spending could lead to a potentially catastrophic new sovereign debt crisis on the Mediterranean.
Commentators warn not only of a dysfunction in Italy but also wider disruption across the euro zone. Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau invoked the dreaded historical analogy of Weimar Germany, arguing that Europe's elites underestimate "the scale of the threat that they face."
“Italians must understand that the future of Italy is in Europe and nowhere else, but there are rules to respect," said France's finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, on Sunday, referring to the prospect of an even larger Italian budget deficit. That drew a sharp rebuke on Twitter from Salvini, who wrote that he didn't campaign to keep Italy "on a path of poverty, precariousness and immigration."
That last note echoed the other plank of the new populist platform — a plan to carry out mass deportations of illegal migrants and scale back Italy's efforts to rescue those attempting the perilous sea journey from North Africa. For Salvini and the League, it's simply part of their ultranationalist, far-right politics. But for the Five Star Movement, as di Maio told Today's WorldView last year, it serves as a wake-up call to the European Union, which they argue has not done enough to support Italy on migration.
Either way, critics warn of an intensifying climate of xenophobia. "Many members of the League accept that they are racists," said Cecile Kyenge, a Congolese-born Italian politician in the European Parliament who also served as Italy's first black cabinet minister in 2013, to the Guardian. "It is very difficult for me to see that a party that accepts it is racist is going to manage law, which is supposed to protect all the community."
Of course, there remains plenty of skepticism about what the populists can actually achieve if they take power. They have a slender majority in parliament, and their more drastic reforms could face constitutional checks, including from the influential president himself.
"Even if they do form a government, the League and Five Star will probably repeat the experience of anti-establishment and euroskeptic forces elsewhere," wrote Italian columnist Ferdinando Giugliano. "For all the tub-thumping rhetoric, many of their ideas will probably remain on paper."
If they fail in the near term, however, there's no guarantee the centrist status quo will return. Italy itself has seen this cycle before: Italy's traditional parties collapsed in the 1990s, and corruption-weary voters turned to a flamboyant businessman in Berlusconi. But neither he nor his center-left counterparts were able to fix Italy's woes, and their movements have now similarly floundered in favor of a new era of populism.
"Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices," wrote Post columnist Anne Applebaum. "On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of 'elites,' both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before."
This is hardly a uniquely Italian phenomenon. "Europe’s party systems are more volatile than ever before," noted political scientist Matthew Goodwin, "with more people switching their votes from one election to the next and no longer displaying the strong partisan allegiances that characterized the silent generation and baby boomers."
But Italy may be at the head of the wider trend in the West. In a piece earlier this year, historian David Broder observed how voters, animated by nationalist tribalism and a complete lack of faith in the ability of the state, "see their choice increasingly detached from any change of government policy." In its "chaos," Broder wrote, Italy "has provided the model for our time."
"It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject," Applebaum warned. "Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future."
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