“Come on, president, we voted for you!” people on the streets of Rome shouted to the new Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on June 2, the Italian Republic Day. The president of the republic, Sergio Mattarella, officially proclaimed the yellow-green government the day before, and one of the most acute political and institutional crisis in the recent Italian history came to an end.
It is necessary, however, to remember some of the intrinsic contradictions of the new Lega-5 Star coalition. The most immediate one regards the contingent nature of the union: Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini ran separate electoral campaigns, and often they were in opposing corners. As a result, the political orientation of the new government is a medley of conflicts.
There are clear right-wing policy reforms, such as the flat tax and the securitarian approach to migration (Salvini has often expressed admiration for the policies of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán). On the other hand, there is the proposal to implement a new citizenship income, a major plank of the left-wing agenda.
For this reason, the main problematic aspect of the new coalition is about its political discourse. A populist one, where the distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is stronger than ever: ‘Italians’ vs. migrants, the ‘people’ vs. the ‘establishment.’ The novelty, as Marco Revelli highlighted some days ago in il manifesto, is that we are dealing with “a populism without people.” This creates a plurality of discourses that are interchangeable and a political theme that is not fixed or universal. Thus, the 5 Star-Lega coalition does not represent a coherent political people, rather it implies heterogeneous and volatile theme, in which different and even conflicting discourses and ideas intertwined.
In this regard, Conte could be regarded as the perfect symptom of the present situation. Indeed, whom does the prime minister represent? Nobody, if we look the March 4 national elections. He is the 5th unelected Italian prime minister in a row, a trend which began with Mario Monti, the economist who took over for Berlusconi during the economic crisis at the end of November 2011. Then, Letta, Renzi and Gentiloni.
Although 5 Star and Lega strongly insist on the radical novelty of the new government, the unelected prime minister is a clear sign of political continuity in the country. And not just as a matter of form; it is a matter of political content.
Conte is an indefinable third figure who perfectly represents the “populism without people” proposed by Revelli. The classic populism requires a unique strong leader, a central figure who unites people with a defined public discourse.
We’re witnessing an unprecedented scenario: a non-elected non-leader in the top position, with two leaders in subordinate roles. Conte’s new government does not adapt to the basic principle of political unity through synthesis, but rather it is a odd creature that reflects the socio-political national crisis.