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Riot Colors in Italian Politics

There is a specific chromatic dialect that characterizes a political system of any given country. In Italy, the political forces of the First Republic took on a number of colors, primarily those from the national tricolor flag. The white was for Christian democrats, since the Christian Democratic Party used a white shield with a red cross as its symbol. The red was monopolized by the communists. There was also a red carnation that was associated with the socialists and the red sun of the social democrats, the tricolored symbol of the liberals, the green ivy of the republicans and the red rose of the radicals. Black was historically attributed to the fascists and other movements of the radical right.

In the mid-1990s, most of these colorful images faded, which was largely attributable to the Mani pulite (Clean Hands) anti-corruption campaign.

New parties brought new colors into the pallet of Italian politics: the sky blue of Silvio Berlusconi’s party, the dark green of Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord (Northern League) and later Mateo Salvini’s Lega (League), and finally the yellow of Beppe Grillo’s and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement. Red remained the color of the communists as well as the Democratic Party as one of the remnants of the Italian Communist Party.

On September 5, 2019, a new yellow-red government was sworn into office in Italy. It relies on the cooperation rather than an alliance between two center-left parties: the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party.

The preceding, yellow and green, cabinet was in place for a little over a year until Matteo Salvini provoked a government crisis. It happened on the eve of Ferragosto, a public holiday that marks the beginning of the vacation season. Salvini announced that he no longer wanted to work with the Five Star Movement, providing as a pretext disagreements over the construction of the Turin-Lyon high-speed rail line. The League leader called for a snap parliamentary election. At the time, his approval ratings were as high as 40 percent.

However, President Sergio Mattarella and top political leaders did everything they could in order to prevent the election from taking place. In other words, they went to great lengths to neutralize Salvini. He had served as the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior for over a year that was marked by his continuous attempts to reshape Italian politics as a firm adept of sovereignty and the Italians First principle, an iteration of Trump’s political slogan.

Matteo Salvini policies did little to consolidate Italy’s standing neither in Europe nor internationally. On the contrary, it widened the gap separating the country from the core of the EU. As Britain prepares to leave the EU, Italy has the opportunity to fill in the hole left by the UK and transform the Germany-France tandem that currently leads the EU into a Germany-France-Italy triangle. In a different scenario, Italy would join the EU outsiders and become their political leader. As one of the founding members of the EU, Italy has always regarded European integration as a major foreign policy priority, which means that the second scenario hardly matches this vision.

Had Salvini succeeded in calling a snap election in October 2019, a victory at the polls would have enabled him to rule the country on his own. This would have been made possible by the shortcomings of the country’s electoral system that has changed several times since the 1990s, transitioning from a proportional to a mixed system, and then to a first-past-the-post principle. A number of electoral laws were enacted over this period of time, including the Mattarellum, the Porcellum that was invalidated by the Constitutional Court, and the Rosatellum.

Italy’s post-war electoral system was initially designed as a counterweight to the framework that enabled Mussolini’s arrival to power (Acerbo Law) and paved the way to a totalitarian regime. It is for this reason that the electoral system was initially geared as much as possible toward the principle of proportionality which was viewed as the best solution for a multi-party system and ensuring pluralism. However, in order to stop the endless string of recurring government crises, it was decided to move away from proportional to plurality voting, also known as the first-past-the-post electoral system, which was expected to provide for a more efficient and stable political system.

The Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party succeeded in agreeing on a concept for returning to a proportional electoral system. This will hardly make the political situation any more stable, since there will be as many parties as there are today or even more. At the same time, it will prevent one of the parties (for example, the League) from being given a carte blanche.

In August 2019, Matteo Salvini decided to take a gamble on his political career, just as his nemesis Matteo Renzi did in 2016 when he announced (and lost) a constitutional referendum while his approval ratings were at their highest. Salvini lost this time, but promised to come back. It is obvious that he will oppose and seek to derail any initiative undertaken by the new cabinet.

TVBoy, a graffiti artist sometimes referred to as Italy’s Banksy, responded to the formation of a new government by a new painting on a palazzo in Rome titled Three Graces, as a reference to a famous painting by Raphael. The three graces were represented as Nicola Zingaretti from the Democratic Party, Luigi Di Maio from the Five Star Movement and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte standing between them, against the backdrop of yellow and red hearts and with Matteo Renzi represented as a Cupid.

In fact, it was Matteo Renzi who benefited the most from the political standoff between the League, the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party, having played a major if not the most important role in the formation of the new government. It may well be that Renzi will soon establish a new party in order to join the political fray. It remains to be seen what color he chooses.

The new yellow and red cabinet results by and large from an artificial coalition. As we know, artificial coalitions of this kind seldom take root or at least find it very challenging. It can be argued that the Italian authorities have simply postponed a snap general election, which means that new colors and undertones will soon appear in Italy.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.