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Across the West, we have felt the rise of populism with the marks of Brexit and the election of Trump being the clearest examples of this. While the West has been fixated on the details of Brexit and the Sino-American Trade War, we see other nations trying to stem the tide of far-right populism. In Italy, the new coalition between the Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party (DP) offers a new look on how to address the needs of the citizenry, with an alternative to the populist policies of the Right.

Italian politics has always been dominated by strongmen who have held the limelight in their time. In 2019 we see nothing different, in Beppe Grillo and now Giuseppe Conte, the anti-establishment, anticorruption and uniquely democratic Five-Star Movement has taken the stage to address the “ills” of the Italian political establishment. The party was born in 2009 out of the reaction to the inability of Italian governance and to address the needs of the changing country. The party itself is populist, but it sits uniquely on the left and with the election of 2013 it broke into the Italian parliament as one of the largest parties, taking it from a comedian’s blog into the mainstream of Italian politics. 

The party has a unique mechanism for engaging with the citizenry and advocated direct democracy in building its platform in parliament. Members of the party have the ability to vote directly on the party website on decisions they would like the parliamentary party to make, and it has been instrumental for revoking an aggressive policy regarding immigrants and recently  the creation of the M5S-DP coalition. The coalition between the two parties is significant because until the collapse of the coalition between the M5S and La Lega (the League), the far-right party of Salvini, the two had been enemies.

The Democratic Party (PD) was founded as an amalgamation of the former Communist Party of Italy and other smaller leftist parties in a new effort to invigorate the Left in the early 2000s. The PD was the prime example of establishment and elitism that the M5S was fighting against. This antagonism forced the coalition with Conte and Salvini, which has only lasted a year of very tense power sharing between a party fighting for the people and a party reinvigorating Italian nationalist politics. The two populist parties, though united in their design to bring government back to the people, were divided in how extreme they were willing to go to achieve the best for Italians.

The policies produced by the M5S-Lega smacked of poor economic planning and nationalist tilts. The budget plan that was put forth had Italy over the EU deficit limit of 2%, promised too much and delivered too little. All it did was allow room for Salvini and La Lega to work the political scene and influence the people towards his version of Euroscepticism, nationalism and xenophobia. The poor economic prospects in Italy have been a driver in the past for the right, and Italians have warmed back up to the ideas of the far-right. Salvini sells Italians a nostalgia for the prosperity Italy experienced before WWII, and a leader not willing to be dictated to by the remote EU. Unfortunately, these sentiments have found willing listeners which have propelled the popularity of La Lega into the second most popular party in the most recent 2018 election, with 125 deputies in the Parliament.

The coalition ended with the resignation of Conte, leader of the M5S, as the PM drew up the prospects of a general election in which Salvini was posed to win a majority after gaining popularity into Southern Italy, traditionally the heartland of M5S. Luckily, with the support of its party member’s vote, the M5S has ironed out its differences with the PD in order to side-line La Lega, prevent an early election and return Italy to a more levelled form of political discourse.

What is needed from this unlikely team is reasoned policies that address the needs of everyday Italians. With reform, economic growth and an outwardly capable looking government, the Five-Star Movement can pull Italians away from their flirtation with the far-right and potentially be the first Western democracy to put to bed the idea of the return of the spectre of Fascism. If the pair can pull Italians out of poverty and bring investment back to Italy, there is still hope that common-sense politics can be brought back into the mainstream.

Robert Mirante is an external contributor to Centre-Write. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.