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The Italian Job

A triumph of “populism”; a hung Parliament; “ungovernable” Italy; Berlusconi’s demise; the latest chapter in the “end of socialist parties” European saga. Italy’s latest elections were a roller coaster featuring plenty of thrills. Yet the top political nugget is unmistakable; only one coalition may aspire to an absolute majority, an – unlikely – alliance between the populist Five Star Movement and the extreme-right League, led by Matteo Salvini.

That’s what actually will be hangin’ in the air for the next – long – days; arguably as many as 51, according to a projection by JP Morgan relayed by Bloomberg. “Europe”, meanwhile, will also be hangin’ in the balance, as Italy is the third largest economy in the eurozone.

The Italian race was a highly personalized affair, centered on four stars; former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – the Italian Tony Blair – of the center-left PD; the larger than life Silvio “bunga bunga” Berlusconi of the right-wing Forza Italia; populist Five Star leader Luigi di Maio; and extreme-right Lega leader Matteo Salvini.

As for Sergio Mattarella, the president of the Italian Republic, he will have to pull nothing less than a magic trick to come up with a government.

“Italy for Italians”

With nearly 32% of the votes, the populist Five Star Movement is now the top party of a largely fractured Italy. 5S won largely in the south while Lega won largely in the north. Rejection of Traditional Politics was the winner overall. As for the PD, they even managed to lose historically leftist Emilia-Romagna.

Five Star’s platform features a promise to lower taxes – which in Italy tend to hover around a Dante-esque lower circle of hell; set up an universal minimum wage; raise pensions; revise the terms of “hire and fire”; invest in new technologies; cut off red tape for business; and on the crucial immigration issue, come up with more bilateral treaties to increase repatriation of immigrants.

Contrary to alarmist hysteria, Italy is not exactly sinking. The fundamentals are actually solid. GDP went up 1.5% in 2017 – twice the rate of Rome’s forecasts. Of course that’s much less than the 2.5% European average – but still that’s Italy’s best score in ten years, when the nation was mostly mired in a horrible recession. Industrial production went up by 3%, and exports by 7% – leading to a trade surplus of 48 billion euros.

Still, the center-left coalition, in power since 2013, ended up in smithereens. The PD will hardly recover. Blair clone Renzi, the party’s secretary, might as well say goodbye, as the stigma of “loser” will not vanish.

Indeed, this election result might as well represent the end of a historical cycle of socialist parties – only in name – in power; their demise is due to the simple fact they went hardcore neoliberal. The PD most likely will turn into an opposition radical chic minority vehicle for sectors of the educated middle class paying lip service to “humanitarian values”. Definitely not a mass party.

All eyes are focused on whether Five Stars leader Luigi di Maio – who succeeded founder Beppe Grillo – will bow out to a political alliance.

5S may be entering a new, more moderate, phase; in fact they will have to, otherwise their “change you can believe in” narrative simply won’t be implemented (even as they insist nothing can change with those corrupt political parties in place.)

5S have been presented with a historical chance to actually rule. As much as there’s a fierce internal struggle between the orthodox and the “governists”, they would hardly trade this electoral gift for playing the role of opposition.

As for the 45-year-old Milanese Salvini, he was rewarded for a master political coup. Salvini erased “Nord” from the party’s name and got rid of the green representing wealthy – and largely mythical – Padania to the benefit of a nationalist/populist blue. And he bet on campaigning hard on immigration – in the process thoroughly overtaking its right-wing ally, Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Salvini was praised by Marine le Pen and fully supported by Steve Bannon. He even conquered large swathes of southern Italy, promising only 15% in taxes and protection for Italian olive oil from Northern African competition. Sporting sweatshirts emblazoned with “Italy for Italians”, his tirades against “clandestine” immigrants, Nigerian drug dealers, the euro, Islam and homosexual liaisons were wildly popular.

Exit bunga-bunga?

And that brings us to the fate of Silvio “Il Cavaliere” Berlusconi, cutting quite a lonely figure in his seventh electoral campaign, something totally against his glamour-drenched historical script. He rambled on like a scratched CD. He lost his mojo. He was heavily criticized even by his – much younger – allies. And the worst – from his point of view – happened; the Lega boomed yet that was still not enough to propel his alliance towards a large majority.

Silvio could always come up with a last-minute cliffhanger – an alliance with Renzi. Too little, too late.

This election graphically represented the fear, anger and distress of millions of Italians threatened by de-industrialization and under-employment – all victims of the “disciplines of the euro”, which translate as “austerity” and its catalogue of ills. Italy’s economy remains a whopping 6% smaller than in 2008, when the crisis hit.

Brussels was the ultimate loser, big time. Those mediocre Eurocrats never asked themselves any questions regarding the roots of Italy’s extreme distress as well as myriad problems plaguing the industrial North-agrarian South divide. High unemployment and low growth may increase budget deficits. The easy answer is Brussels-imposed welfare cuts – but the real answer would be fighting white-collar corruption, the banking casino and Mafiosi deals.

The EU as it stands has lost any memory of its immeasurably complex ties with the civilization that forged the Best of the West – from the Roman empire to the Renaissance.

Meanwhile, it’s Circus Maximus time. Even as Salvini insists there will be no coalition and the center-right will rule by itself, Italy may even wake up one of these days to a political outlook closer to Hungary’s Orban than Germany’s Frau Merkel. The real Italian Job would be the surge of an anti-Brussels coalition of convenience between 5S and Lega. As Cicero would have it, stranger things have happened in the magic peninsula.

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Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007), Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge and Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).  His latest book is Empire of ChaosHe may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

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