Inside Story

Italy’s disembodied populists

Monday’s referendum and election results highlight the vulnerability of the Five Star Movement

James Panichi 23 September 2020 1270 words

Salaries next? Foreign affairs minister Luigi Di Maio (centre) arrives to declare victory in Italy’s referendum on MP numbers. Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

You’ve got to hand it to Italy’s populists. Under pressure to fulfil their promise to cut politicians’ unreasonably high salaries, they put forward a plan to slash the cost of representative democracy. But the constitutional amendment they came up with didn’t quite match the problem it was meant to solve: instead of cutting parliamentary pay, they cut the number of MPs.

With the support of around 70 per cent of the voters who showed up at the polling booths, a government led by the populist, left-leaning Five Star Movement managed to change articles 56 and 57 of Italy’s 1947 constitution, reducing the number of lower house MPs from 630 to 400 and the number of senators from 315 to 200. The referendum offered voters a rare chance to kick the country’s political establishment and they jumped at the chance, even if the 600 parliamentarians who will be elected to future legislatures will remain the highest-paid in the European Union.

A conservative estimate of what Italian national politicians earn annually is around the €167,000 mark — that’s A$272,000, before tax. But the take-home figure is much higher, with significant travel and accommodation allowances, and electoral reimbursements that are usually handed over without the hassle of coughing up receipts. Compare that with Germany, where lawmakers take home just over €100,000 a year; or Romania, where MPs receive a miserly €18,000. Italian politicians are — and are set to remain — particularly well remunerated and the referendum has done nothing to change that.

What has changed, however, is that Italians’ political representation has been slashed by a third, something that will be felt particularly by citizens living abroad, whose elected representatives have gone from eighteen to twelve. It’s a grim outcome for overseas Italians given that their previous allocation, twelve MPs and six senators, was already decoupled from any calculation of the value of the votes of five million citizens living abroad compared with those of sixty million Italians in Italy.

The populists knew, of course, that enough scoundrels are sitting in the Italian parliament to make the numbers set by the postwar constitution hard to defend. Open any Italian newspaper and you’ll find accounts of politicians never showing up in parliament, or making last-minute appearances purely to claim allowances. Others are corrupt; many are self-serving political appointments.

Few Italian parties had the political capital to fight this perception. The left-wing Democratic Party, Five Star’s partner in government, threw its support behind the “yes” vote — albeit with a few high-profile dissenters. Two high-profile far-right parties, the League (formerly the Northern League) and Brothers of Italy, also urged their supporters to vote “yes,” though Forza Italia, the party of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, opted to remain neutral, telling its followers to vote according to their conscience. Only two small parties, the liberal and libertarian Più Europa and Action, supported the “no” vote; after counting they were able to claim a moral victory of sorts, given that polls at the beginning of the campaign had suggested a “yes” vote as high as 90 per cent.

The reduction in political representation is a neat ideological fit for Five Star, which runs its own party through a form of online, direct democracy and has built its brand around the idea that parliamentary democracy is no longer fit for purpose. The outcome of the referendum also gels with the rhetoric used by the League, which built its solid following in northern Italy in the 1990s by arguing that Roma ladrona — thieving Rome — was starving the productive north of resources and redistributing its wealth to the poorer south. The cut in the number of parliamentarians — and, by implication, in the overall cost of representation — would have played well with the League’s base, which is reliably anti-Rome and anti-establishment.

For those Italians who, despite everything, haven’t given up on representative democracy, the dramatic cuts to parliament will play out against an already bleak background. The current electoral system for national polls, nicknamed the Rosatellum (Latin-sounding names for electoral laws is an in-joke that has been kicking around since 1993), is a mixed proportional representation system that offers voters little say over whom they choose. Most seats are allocated on the basis of liste bloccate, or blocked lists, akin to Australia’s Senate system but without a below-the-line option. The parties choose who gets elected and voters can do little to punish the charlatans and reward the honest. There’s even a word for it: partitocrazia, rule by political parties.

There’s no denying that the referendum has given Italian populists a solid victory. Years of telling the electorate that politicians are decadent and dishonest have resonated: the argument that parliamentary democracy has failed was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the 53 per cent of eligible voters who cast a ballot.

The good news, of course, is that there will be fewer party hacks and fewer corrupt and lazy MPs and senators drawing a salary; the bad news is that there will also be fewer driven, passionate and idealistic men and women taking their place in Rome’s Palazzo Montecitorio and Palazzo Madama. In one fell swoop, representation has been cut by a third; the vital committee work that provides oversight of government agencies and develops policy is likely to suffer.

The referendum has boosted the prospects of prime minister Giuseppe Conte. Although the head of a coalition government made up of both the Democratic Party and Five Star, he is identified with the populists. Yet the results of a handful of regional and municipal elections that took place alongside the referendum suggest that while Five Star’s anti-establishment message has cut through, its electoral popularity is waning. Its coalition partner’s star, meanwhile, may be rising.

Of the seven regions facing an election, three — Tuscany, Campania and Apulia — went to the Democratic Party and three — Veneto, Liguria and the Marches — to the centre right. It doesn’t sound like something the Democratic Party would want to celebrate, particularly given that fifteen of Italy’s twenty regions are held by centre-right parties and Tuscany is a left-wing stronghold.

But the centre left’s relatively strong performance may affect the balance within the national coalition government, where the Democratic Party has, until now, been relegated to the role of junior partner. Rightly or wrongly, the results will be seen as a vote of confidence in its leader, Nicola Zingaretti, who has had to contend with a divided party and high-profile defections to the “no” camp in the run-up to the referendum.

In fact, there’s an argument to be made that the success of the “yes” vote has given Five Star a face-saving win against the backdrop of a serious electoral defeat. The party that could once have relied on the support of disaffected, left-leaning young Italians across the country is now on the back foot: in the north it garnered just a third of the votes it secured five years ago, with municipal results in the south suggesting comparable problems. One senior Five Star official, Max Bugani, estimated that the party has shed eight million votes over two years.

Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s minister for foreign affairs and the most senior Five Star figure in the government, has attempted to build on the referendum by saying he is ready to tackle parliamentary salaries. But the party’s poor electoral performance raises the prospect of disembodied populism, in which anti-political campaigns attract more support than the parties promoting them. This may point to Italian populism’s ultimate fate, with those who argue that all politicians are scoundrels being themselves cast aside by a cynical, angry electorate. •