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In Italy, an End-Around of Democracy

Sometimes the surest way to bring about change is to resist it.

|May 30, 2018

By George Friedman

Sometimes the surest way to bring about change is to resist it. Such might be the case in Italy, whose elections recently brought to power two nationalist and euroskeptic parties known as the Five Star Movement and the League. Together, they won enough seats to form a coalition government, which they endeavored to do last week, and though both parties have moderated their anti-EU campaign rhetoric, they selected for finance minister a controversial figure who wants out of the eurozone. Then, in a move no one anticipated, the Italian president, normally a figurehead, vetoed the nominee’s appointment. The coalition collapsed. To add insult to injury, the president picked a former International Monetary Fund official to be the interim prime minister. He will lead a technocratic government that cannot undertake initiatives but can work within a designated framework – that is, until new elections are held.

In other words, the president circumvented the will of the people. He appointed an official of an organization loathed by the constituents of the winners of free and fair elections and gave him the power to continue the policies they essentially voted to undo. Notably, he also exposed how weak the coalition really was. Few of its members have experience in Italian high politics. Its supporters may wear this as a badge of honor, and its opponents may consider it a flaw, but neutral observers simply see it for what it is: The inevitable result of the transformation of Italian politics.

The president’s tactics may well backfire. He is betting that by forcing a new election, a new outcome will emerge. That is possible. After all, in Italy, support for EU directives is relatively low, but a majority of Italians still support remaining within the eurozone. They just want to make the decision on their own.

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But it’s as likely as not that the anti-establishment forces that brought the League and Five Star to power will swell, especially if Italians believe their democracy is at risk. Over the next few months, Italian politics will be operatic, and it will resonate throughout Europe, especially in places such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, which have all bucked Brussels’ authority.

The EU will no doubt accept the Italian president’s decision to replace an elected coalition with a caretaker government that is at least less hostile to the EU. The argument will be that the Italian president operated within the rules of the Italian Constitution. This is true. But the fact is that he reversed the results of the election, and it will be seen as such. It will be seen as a trick used by the losers against the winners, an obstacle that prevents a popularly elected government from taking power. Not being an expert in Italian constitutional law, I hesitate to speculate that this was not the intent of the constitutional principles used. Still, the unwillingness of the EU to sanction Italy will be seen as support for moves to block, anti-democratically if constitutionally, the outcome of a fundamentally anti-EU election.

The problem this poses to Italy is obvious. Crisis is a given. Italy is a major country and a founding member of the EU. Its citizens elected parties that formed an anti-European government. The president scuttled it.

The problem this poses to the EU is no less pronounced. The Europeans will back the president on narrow constitutional grounds. They will be attacked on broader democratic grounds. But more revealing of the EU’s fundamental weakness are the limited choices it has in responding.  If it simply accepts the nullification of a free election, it will look desperate, anti-democratic and selectively moralistic. If it takes action against Italy – something it is unlikely to do – it will undermine the supporters the EU has left in Italy and elsewhere.

Things are constantly getting rougher in Europe.