POMIGLIANO D’ARCO, Italy (CN) — Any day now Italy’s coalition government — molded from an unlikely alliance of two populist parties drawn from the left and the right — could fall and plunge Europe into a new crisis.
For months, members of this quirky and controversial Italian government have been clashing, but in recent days the tenor of the fight sharpened dramatically after Italian authorities opened an investigation into whether the governing far-right League party may have sought illicit campaign money from Russian sources close to Vladimir Putin.
The League is the junior partner in a coalition government with the 5-Star Movement, an anti-corruption left-leaning upstart internet-based party strong in the impoverished south. The League, by comparison, is a nationalist party dominant in the wealthier north.
Since forming a government in June 2018, the League has steadily outmaneuvered the politically less experienced 5-Star Movement.
Its success comes from being cheered by many Italians who like what the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, is doing as he pushes to expel immigrants, shut Italian ports to asylum-seekers and close down immigration centers.
Polls show that the League has overtaken the 5-Star Movement. If snap elections were called, the League could pick up as much as 40% of the electorate, a percentage that could allow it to govern.
The League is considered one of Europe’s most extreme political forces and a threat to the European Union. Salvini is seeking to form a coalition of like-minded nationalists in Europe and neuter the power of Brussels. At the same time, Italy, one of Europe’s most important economies, is viewed as Europe’s sick man with its astronomic public debt, high unemployment and low-growth economy.
It feels like only a matter of time before Italians will be called to the ballot box again.
“At some point, the League is going to pull the plug,” said Antonio Di Maio, a 39-year-old traffic warden in this sun-baked working-class town just outside of Naples and in view of Mount Vesuvius.
The 5-Star Movement’s ailments are neatly explained in this town because it’s where the party’s leader hails from.
He is Luigi Di Maio, a 33-year-old fresh-faced policy wonk and lawyer with a squeaky clean and buttoned-up image. He grew up on the sunny streets of Pomigliano d’Arco, a city with a long history of left-wing activism due to the presence of automobile factories. Di Maio is not related to the traffic warden, who happens to share his last name.
Di Maio’s mother and father — who was, strangely, a former local candidate for neo-Fascist political parties in the 1980s and 1990s — still live here. Di Maio’s family declined to speak with Courthouse News.
It was in Pomigliano d’Arco that Di Maio in 2007 opened up one of the 5-Stars’ “Meetups,” informal groups of voters and activists who adhere to the party’s message of wiping the slate clean and reforming Italy’s corrupt political system.
From that beginning, Di Maio went on to become the 5-Star Movement’s political leader and one of the youngest Italians ever to reach the highest levels of government.
But at the moment, it looks like Di Maio’s rising fortunes may have crested.
“I think they want Di Maio’s head,” the traffic warden said. “In Italy, in a couple of years, politicians get eaten up, consumed.”
The fall of the 5-Star Movement has played out here too, in Di Maio’s home city, mirroring what’s happened in many other parts of Italy, especially the south.
In national elections in March 2018, the 5-Star Movement picked up about 67% of Pomigliano d’Arco’s votes.
The traffic warden, who is not a 5-Star Movement supporter, described Di Maio’s win as akin to the kind of sweeping victories seen in former one-party communist countries.
“We called it a Bulgarian-style win,” he said. “They got numbers like you would have seen in Bulgaria under communism.”
Across Italy, the 5-Stars swept up nearly 33% of the votes in 2018 and became, for the first time, the largest party in Italy’s Camera dei Deputati, its Parliament.
The victory — though anticipated by polls — was a shock, and ushered in a new and volatile period for Italian politics as the traditional political forces on the left and the right cratered and populists took over the levers of government.
Italy became Europe’s first major country to be ruled by populist parties after the 5-Star Movement and the League each swept up votes and formed a government.
For Europe, Italy suddenly was viewed as a political testing ground: For some, it became a dangerous experiment in populist politics and for others a refreshing bout of change brought about by an electorate fed up with the status quo.
After the elections, left-wing parties were unwilling to work with the upstart 5-Stars and that left Di Maio to join forces with the League.
Since then it’s been anything but easy for Di Maio and the 5-Stars, a novice at governing at the national level. The party has disappointed many people who were attracted to the 5-Star Movement’s ambitious, and radical, plans to overhaul Italian labor laws, push for a green economy, tackle old environmental problems and rid government of corruption.
As deputy prime minister, Di Maio chose to focus on implementing a new welfare law that encourages Italy’s legions of unemployed to find work while also guaranteeing the unemployed a basic income.
In recent weeks, this new social program — called the citizen’s income — has taken effect, but it’s viewed with skepticism and gotten lukewarm marks from Italians.
“I’m not so sure about the citizen’s income,” said Domenico Gianpieri, a 36-year-old worker at a stationery store here. “It will be taken advantage of by those who cheat.”
On a parallel but very different track, the League’s leader, the firebrand interior minister Salvini, has leaped to the forefront.
In many ways, Salvini’s task to grab the public’s attention was much simpler: He came into government vowing to crack down on immigration and he’s waged a ruthless campaign to do that.
He’s blocked humanitarian rescue vessels carrying refugees picked up from flimsy crafts in the Mediterranean Sea from entering Italian ports. He’s also called for the roundup and expulsion of people living in Italy without authorization and shut down immigration welcome centers.
Salvini’s style of leadership has won over Italians, through a combination of crass commentary, xenophobic outbursts and amicable warmth. At the same time, Salvini has campaigned nonstop to become the next prime minister, holding numerous rallies, appearing on television talk shows and generating a stream of social media posts.
This May’s elections to the European Parliament confirmed the trends: The 5-Star Movement picked up only about 44% of votes in Pomigliano d’Arco and nationally its vote tally sank to about 17%.
By comparison, the League obtained 34% of the national vote and made inroads even in the south. This is an extraordinary development because the League for years advocated turning northern Italy into a separate country and continues to advocate for more autonomy in the north.
Many League supporters hold racist views toward southern Italy, calling it dirty, dangerous and lazy. For obvious reasons, League supporters have, until recently, been largely absent in the south.
Salvini’s succeeded in rebranding his party as the country’s leading right-wing voice, and this success was seen in Pomigliano d’Arco too. In the 2018 elections, the League got 2% of the vote and in the European elections it got 8%.
Vincenzo La Montagna, a 60-year-old carpenter and former Communist Party supporter who voted for Di Maio in the past election, shook his head as he stood next to his brightly painted vintage Volkswagen bus parked on the main street through Pomigliano d’Arco.
“Luigi (Di Maio) is a good kid,” he said. And then, with irony, he explained that Di Maio has not learned how to become a successful Italian politician, which he said means playing dirty and donning the mantle of corruption.
“He’s still got to soil his jacket, as we say,” La Montagna said, grinning with irony. “There’s a saying: Anyone who goes to work in a flour mill will eventually get sullied by flour. All these people up there (in Rome) have robbed us for 50 years.”
He quickly added: “I hope he doesn’t do that. I hope he doesn’t do the same” as so many of Italy’s politicians.
The 5-Star Movement has a central principle that says anyone under investigation for corruption or convicted of corruption must be banned from the party and should not be involved in politics.
The irony is that the 5-Stars now find themselves in government with a party, the League, which is facing allegations of widespread misuse of campaign funds and now suspicion of receiving illegal funds from Russia.
On Wednesday, Italy’s prime minister, university professor Giuseppe Conte, who is not a member of either the 5-Stars or the League, is expected to speak in Parliament about the Russian campaign scandal.
For Biagio Di Lauro, a retired school superintendent in Pomigliano d’Arco, Di Maio and the 5-Stars are suffering because their signature piece of legislation, the citizen’s income, hasn’t lived up to expectations.
In southern Italy, the 5-Stars were so successful in 2018 because many in the impoverished south were eager to see an injection of welfare funds get directed to their regions. But in practice, the citizen’s income scheme has been slow to make much of a difference so far.
Di Lauro said the system has proven cumbersome and that there are flaws with the way the money is being handed out. He said that the system could, for example, end up awarding money to people who are working under the table and not paying taxes.
“The citizen’s income has to be very closely monitored to avoid these kinds of errors,” he said.
He added another observation: For him, the 5-Stars and their reliance on Web-based politicking is wrong-headed.
“You need more personal contact with the people,” he said. “It’s one thing to contact people online; it’s another to meet people in person.”
He added: “In my opinion, the Movement also needs to become more competent.”
Di Maio, the traffic warden, also mused on the failures of the 5-Stars: “The problem is that the 5-Star Movement is everything and they are nothing. They don’t have a well-defined identity. They are a cauldron full of ideas.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)