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What Italy’s political crisis told us about populism in Europe

Ben Margulies, (2018), “What Italy’s political crisis told us about populism in Europe”, LSE EUROPP, 11 June

Europe’s leaders and thinkers long feared the catastrophe that might ensue if Italy inaugurated a populist government. Then they feared the catastrophe that might ensue if Italy didn’t.

To recap: On 4 March, Italy held a general election. Two populist parties, the radical-right populist Lega and the vaguely centrist Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five-Stars Movement, or M5S), secured approximately half the vote. Although the Lega was allied to other right-wing parties during the election campaign (including Silvio Berlusconi’s), it and the Five Star Movement formed a coalition agreement and proposed a compromise prime minister, a law professor named Giuseppe Conte. The coalition agreement promised a flatter income-tax system, expanded income support for the unemployed, tougher policies against undocumented immigration and the renegotiation of European fiscal treaties. On 23 May, Sergio Mattarella, the president of the Republic, formally charged Conte with installing a government.

Four days later, Conte resigned, after Mattarella rejected his choice for role of finance and economy minister, Paolo Savona, because Savona is vocally opposed to the euro. Under the Italian Constitution (Article 92), “The President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers and, on his proposal, the Ministers,” so Mattarella’s action was both lawful and not unprecedented. In previous cases, the premier-designate had just moved the offending minister, which is what the Lega and M5S ended up doing later in the week. But for a few days, Lega and the M5S refused to back down; Conte quit as premier-designate, leaving Mattarella to propose a former IMF functionary, Carlo Cottarelli as an interim premier pending new elections.

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