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Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party. He runs Brexit Analytics.

The parody Twitter account @ProfBritPol_PhD satirises a political scientist who, knowing nothing about the country involved, proceeds to make sweeping predictions about a country’s elections based on his preferred Grand International Theory. Most UK coverage of Italy’s vote owes him a great debt.

Italy, we are told, has been hit by the populist wave that’s been crashing around the world powered by the financial and migration crises. It is a vote against the old elites, and institutions in which people have no trust and against German-inspired fiscal austerity.

But populism isn’t new in a country that boasts Silvio Berlusconi as its longest-serving postwar Prime Minister. This isn’t the wave, but the changing of the populist guard.

Despite appearances, Italy never had the conventional left-right political system established in most industrial democracies. The Christian Democrats, in power almost continually until the early 1990s, were built their support on anti-communism in the north and clientelism in the south. Think Ireland’s Fianna Fáil, rather than Germany’s CDU.

They collapsed in scandal, and were replaced by Silvio Berlcusconi’s easily-as-corrupt entertainment politics. His governments (usually coalitions with the Northern League and a small “post-fascist” element), like those of the Christian Democrats before him, were punctuated by occasional technocratic rule led by the centre-left.

The real story of this election is not the populist wave, but the inability of a single party to step into the vacuum left by Berlusconi’s own collapse (his party got only 14 per cent). Instead, Italy’s protest vote was split along North-South dividing lines. The Five Star Movement, originally an anti-political protest outfit now turned into a clientelist vehicle of tax-eaters, dominated in the south. The League, despite dropping “Northern” from its name and campaigning as a normal Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, hard right, taxpayers’ party, made no headway down south.

The result is a split parliament, with no sustainable majority for anyone. Five Star are the single largest force, with 221 seats. A ‘centre-right’ coalition (League, Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia) holds 260, and a ‘centre-left’ one 112 (Italy’s election law encourages the formation of electoral coalitions but doesn’t require them to be maintained after the vote). In theory, Five Star and the League, both populists, could govern together. In practice they are completely opposed: Five Star is a vehicle for taxing Italy’s wealthy north and diverting its resources to the south. The League, though no longer campaigning for the north to secede, exists specifically to prevent such fiscal transfers. They are in addition opposed on everything from education, to defence to migration policy. The only thing they agree on is that the EU should allow Italy to borrow more than three per cent of GDP every year.

This election exposes what has always been Italy’s problem: the inability of the south to develop economically. Its causes – the legacy of being governed as an outpost of the Spanish Empire rather than as civic republics taken in by the Austro-Hungarians; weak institutions and organised crime; the stifling weight of the institutional Catholic church – are well-known. Attempts to develop the south failed when funds were diverted by corruption and people left, first to the north and now across Europe. A powerful extreme left has not helped. Though it no longer kidnaps Prime Ministers or assassinates those responsible for implementing new labour laws (the last one was killed in 2002) its voters, by abstaining in a sulk whenever the centre-left attempts economic reform, let the right in. The centre-left PD (led by Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister) fell below 20 per cent on Sunday, and lost control of the traditionally ‘Red’ Emilia Romagna region, chiefly thanks to its voters staying home, though it also lost some to both Five Star and the League.

The conventional wisdom is right to blame the protest vote on economic stagnation, and right also to point to the Euro. Before it joined, Italy would finance the underdeveloped south by devaluation (that’s why the Lira had so many noughts). This increased the revenue brought in by the export-oriented northern economy — Italy has the second largest industrial base in Europe after Germany — which could be redistributed to the south. Joining the Euro deprived Rome of this tool. Instead of the hard work of reforms, Berlusconi’s governments borrowed. Fine before the crisis; impossible after the markets began to look realistically upon Italy’s public finances. The migration surge, to which Italy is vulnerable because of a coastline so long it took Julius Caesar to keep it safe from pirates, and its proximity to chaotic Libya, piles on further pressure.

Nicholas Hyntner’s production of Julius Caesar now playing at The Bridge opens to Twisted Sister’s ‘We’re not going to take it‘. The vote for the anti-political Five Star Movement expresses that song’s spirit more than Caesar’s own appeal to national greatness, and no state-building alternative leader is available. The split of Italian populism into tax-paying (League) and tax-eating (Five Star) varieties makes it hard to see how a new government can be formed. Expect a caretaker administration, followed by new elections in short order.

69 comments for: Garvan Walshe: In Italy, the battle is now between tax-paying and tax-eating populists

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