The coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and anti-migrant the League has been high on hostile rhetoric, but it remains to be seen whether it translates into reality.
ROME — Exactly 80 days ago, Italians went to the polls, throwing up a fractured mandate with no party winning enough numbers to form the government. The country is now edging closer to installing a new government, but in a green corner in the heart of Rome, the prospective new government's promises as articulated in a 'contract' drawn up by coalition partners the Five Star Movement and the League, would appear to any observer a little anachronistic.
Paolo and Romario Pino are originally from Ecuador and have been in Italy for over a decade. They have come to pick up their 4-year-old daughters at Celio Azzurro, a self-described 'intercultural' nursery school located in a green area next to an ancient Roman chariot-racing stadium. Sixty children come here from all over the city, and their parents are from all sorts of different backgrounds: Brasilian, Romanian, Peruvian and Italian.
Newborns of immigrant parents aren't entitled to receive Italian citizenship, according to the country's laws. Prior to the March elections, parliamentarians debated a law that would have allowed more than 800,000 of such children to become Italian citizens. But anti-migrant rhetoric soon dominated the election campaign, and the bill was shelved.
The proposed 'government contract' undersigned by the leaders of the two populist forces charged with forming a government – Luigi di Maio for the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini for the anti-migrant League – promises, among other things, to help struggling families by waiving primary school fees. It states the government would do so “for Italian families.”
Human rights groups such as the Association for Juridical Studies on Immigration have already criticised such language as against the Italian constitution – which guarantees equality – as well as a host of European and international norms, pointing out that 55 percent of foreigners residing in Italy are long-term residents. Similar language pops up in the chapter concerning the so-called 'basic income', one of the Five Star Movement's flagship campaign promises. Touted as a ‘universal income’, as proposed it is a de-facto unemployment subsidy that promises citizens who can prove they are looking for work 780 euros a month.
“We knew that a government led by the Five Star and Salvini, especially by Salvini, would not benefit foreigners,” Paolo, 31, who has been working for cleaning companies since his arrival in Italy, says before his daughter Lavinia comes asking to be taken home, in a distinctly Roman accent. “We work and contribute to the country's growth, so it upsets me to hear these things.”
Out of the impasse
On March 23, Italian President Sergio Mattarella granted Giuseppe Conte, a little-known lawyer and professor who did not run in the elections, the mandate to form a government after weeks of negotiations led to an agreement between the Five Star Movement and the League.
The two parties came out as winners in an election that ended in a hung Parliament, leaving the Five Star Movement as the single largest party with 32 percent of the vote, but not enough to govern alone. A centre-right coalition put together by Italy’s ever-returning former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi won 37 percent of the vote. The League, which was part of that coalition, surpassed the latter's party in the polls, gaining an unprecedented 17 percent. It was strongly criticised for its anti-migrant, anti-Islam rhetoric during the election campaign.
Leaders of the two parties, which together represent half of the Italian electorate, agreed to a coalition on the condition that neither Salvini nor Di Maio would claim the post of prime minister. Instead, they are slated to be assigned influential ministries. These are tipped to be the Interior Ministry for Salvini, which would allow him to oversee migration policies, and the Ministry of Work and Economic Development for Di Maio, to reassure his base of economically marginalised voters.
Conte, an unknown figure to any Italian until a few days ago, had been nominated Public Administration minister as part of the of the Five Star Movement's pre-announced government team. In interviews leading to the vote, he was heard stating he had never voted for the Movement, founded nearly a decade ago by comedian Beppe Grillo.
The union between Salvini and Di Maio caused rattles in the EU and the financial markets, as well as within the country's industrial elite. The parties' eurosceptic stance – largely toned down during elections – resurfaced in the 57-page contract.
For instance, the contract calls for renegotiating Europe's deficit rules, which require Italy to keep its public deficit under three percent. Matteo Salvini, whose allies outside Italy include France's nationalist leader Marine Le Pen and former White House strategist Steve Bannon, has repeatedly talked about a government that would “put Italians first.” Bannon himself, on a recent visit to Italy, hailed the new prospective government as the future leader of the populist, anti-establishment movement in Europe.
The parties are currently working on nominating their ministers, whose final list will have to be approved by the president of the republic. Controversies are ongoing over Salvini and Di Maio's preference for a eurosceptic at the economy ministry.
Between reality and propaganda
In his declaration on the day of his appointment, the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte acknowledged Italy's position within Europe, as well as the contract signed by Salvini and Di Maio a few days earlier, which he helped write. He said the programme represents Italians' “desire for change” and that, as a lawyer, he intends to be the “the Italian people's advocate” in international arenas, somehow echoing Salvini's 'Italians first' narrative.
According to polls, 61 percent of Italians support the establishment of a government led by the Five Star Movement and the League, and 48 percent approve of the contract.
However, a number of commentators have pointed out that Italy does not have the funds to bring its promises to fruition. In particular, the promise to introduce a 'basic income' for the unemployed alongside a ‘flat-tax’, which by proposing two tax rates at 15 and 20 percent would essentially slash tax for higher-income groups, is believed by some economists to be unrealisable. The latter was a cornerstone of the centre-right campaign.
The contract also vows to expedite the repatriation of all 'irregular' migrants, something that experts have repeatedly deemed unrealistic, not only because of the high costs such mass deportations would involve, but also because Italy would have to first strike deals with their countries of origin. The contract promises to open more 'repatriation' centres – installing one in each of Italy's 20 regions.
It also aims to continue with Italy's current approach of 'externalising' its borders, which the contract claims would involve establishing asylum centres in migrants and refugees' countries of origin or in third countries, so that only those who qualify would make the journey to Italy. The issue with that approach, critics argue, is that people who flee their countries fearing political persecution shouldn't be asked to report themselves to the authorities while in the country they're fleeing from.
A reform of the Dublin regulation, which Italy and its southern European neighbours have long been trying to achieve to get northern Europe to take on its share of responsibility for migration, is also in the cards.
In the southeastern suburbs of Rome, merchants from Bangladesh, Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere have set up supermarkets, dry-cleaners, coffee shops and even pizza joints. They are concerned about the prospective government but also know that words may not necessarily translate into action.
After years of saving up, 48-year-old Ahmad Tamis opened a fruit and vegetable store in the traditionally working class neighbourhood of Quadraro just five months ago, in a narrow street that divides high-rise buildings that had been the hideaway of the anti-fascist resistance during World War II. He is more concerned for his business than he is for the proclaimed intention of the prospective government to close all unauthorised mosques as part of an effort to prevent radicalisation. These constitute the majority of mosques in Italy, run and sustained by local communities in informal spaces.
“When there's no government, there's insecurity; people don't know what will happen; they spend less,” said Tamis, who was naturalised as an Italian citizen. “I don't think they will close my local mosque; they only say it to gain votes.”
On this point, Izzeddin Elzir, president of the Union of Islamic Communities in Italy (UCOII) and Imam of Florence, welcomes the opening of a dialogue to introduce a law that would regulate places of worship and guarantee religious freedom.
“What's an unauthorised mosque? First we need a law, then we can say who is unauthorised and who is not,” Elzir said.
“What is concerning is that two parties who say they want to govern our country include [in their programme] sentences that are discriminatory against the Islamic community, linking Islam to terrorism, to fear,” he added.
“To be writing political propaganda even after the end of the election campaign does not bode well.”