[ANALYSIS] Italy election: No one winning may be Malta’s best hope

LONG READ | 1,966 words • A decision by Italy’s centre-left government to take responsibility for migrants rescued on rickety boats crossing the central Mediterranean route eased Malta’s migration pains. But in a climate of growing racism, Italians will be electing a new government which may well veer to the right. What is in store for Italy and for Malta?

Silvio Berlusconi
Silvio Berlusconi

The Maltese anti-migration brigade, clamouring for the Northern League’s Matteo Salvini may be in for a big surprise. For their hero’s victory may well result in the arrival of boatloads of migrants to Malta after a five-year lull where a decision of governments led by the Democratic Party meant Italy opted to take responsibility for migrants rescued in the vicinity of Malta.

Underlying the rise of xenophobes like Salvini is the failure of the Italian left to allay popular concerns, fed by constant media reports linking migration to crime. The timid political reaction by the political mainstream to a punitive mass shooting against migrants in Macerata by Luca Traini, a former Northern League local council candidate, has exposed the weakness of the political establishment in the face of populist anger.

Centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi has dismissed the shooting as an act of non-political madness while Matteo Renzi whose party’s office was also a target in the shootout, while describing the incident as a racist one, was careful in underlining that it was a “criminal” and not a “terrorist” act.

The lethal concoction of long standing anger against the “political caste” and concern on immigration and crime which dominate the airwaves, have created a fertile ground for xenophobic anti-system parties.

Added to this is the enduring appeal of 82-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, a self-made millionaire who survived countless accusations and a number of convictions for corruption, fraud and impropriety. This in itself is a cautionary tale on voters’ readiness to absolve charismatic politicians from corruption allegations.

Berlusconi’s political acumen is once again evident in him playing two apparently contradictory cards: posing as the only moderate politician who can stop the 5 Star Movement (MS5) from winning, while allying himself with the hard right. He may now win either as the architect of a renewed coalition between the far-right and the mainstream right, or as the enabler of a coalition of moderates with Matteo Renzi’s PD which excludes populist parties.

Renzi’s fall from grace

On the other hand former Italian PM Matteo Renzi, the man tipped to win the moderate vote from Berlusconi after snatching 40% in MEP elections in 2014 – which precipitated a palace coup – is now being punished by his own old guard whose wrath he openly provoked.

He is also being shunned by voters who feel more insecure after the approval of the Jobs Act, a reform meant to create new jobs by making it easier for employers to fire workers.

Matteo Renzi
Matteo Renzi

“The Partito Democratico and its allies have strongly been weakened by Matteo Renzi’s prima donna attitude, his arrogant and divisive style, and his shift to a pro-business centrist policy, that has caused a significant split in the party, with Bersani, Grasso and Boldrini’s left-leaning ‘Liberi e Uguali’ polling around 7% in the polls at the moment,” notes the former Alternattiva Demokratika chairman – and also a former Italian MP – Arnold Cassola.

Yet Renzi may still have a lifeline: a post-electoral coalition led by the moderate Antonio Tajani, the man identified by Berlusconi for the post of premier. Over the past weeks the PD, mostly thanks to its alliance with Emma Bonino, has managed to carve out its identity as a Europeanist force.

Aaron Farrugia, the parliamentary secretary in the ministry for European affairs, says the PD is making some headway “by seeking to emulate French President Emmanuel Macron”, who also stood for an open society in contrast to the inward looking National Front.

Who are the contenders?

The election is a three-way race between the centre right coalition led by media mogul Silvio Berlusconi, the centre-left coalition led by Matteo Renzi and the Five Star movement led by Luigi Di Maio.

While the centre-left dominated by the mainstream Democratic Party is more homogenous and offers a prospect of stability, the centre-right is more diverse as it includes the xenophobic and post-fascist right, carrying the risk that it may break up after the election. Unlike Romano Prodi’s Unione coalition, the new centre-left coalition has renounced on any alliance with more left-wing elements which have now regrouped in the ‘Free and Equal’ grouping led by former magistrate Pietro Grasso, now scoring 6% in the polls. This division could cost Renzi his victory.

Luigi di Maio
Luigi di Maio

The PD’s only significant ally is the liberal outfit More Europe, led by civil rights campaigner Emma Bonino that is scoring 3% on a pro-European and anti-xenophobic platform. The other two platforms, the green-socialist Together for Italy and the Christian-democratic Civic Platform barely scrape 1% together.

On the other hand Forza Italia, a member of the European Popular Party, is polling just three points above Matteo Salvini’s Northern League which is more akin to the French National Front, and has replaced northern separatism as its central plank with an anti-immigrant and eurosceptic rhetoric.

The centre-right coalition includes Brothers of Italy, which inherits the post-fascist mantle from the National Alliance. The fact that Berlusconi, who can’t directly contest the election because of a tax fraud conviction, has indicated the moderate Antonio Tajani (presently president of European Parliament) as his preferred choice as Prime Minister, may spell trouble for the coalition.

Yet Forza Italia has managed to govern with both the Northern League and post-fascist parties in the past, while left-wing governments never managed to reconcile differences between the far left and social democracy. This time round the balance of power in the centre-right has clearly shifted to the far right.

And this shows that while the left cannot win without the far left, past experience also shows they cannot govern together.

The Five Star Movement founded by maverick comedian Beppe Grillo is now led by the more respectable Luigi di Maio. The M5S defies ideological stereotypes by appealing to voters of all hues who are fed up by past governments of both left and right. To appeal to right-wing voters, the movement has become more ambivalent on migration, opposing the granting of citizenship to people born in Italy as proposed by the centre-left.

But its track record in local government, particularly in Rome, has also dispelled its image of incorruptibility.

What are they promising?

Silvio Berlusconi’s central plank is a 23% flat tax rate, which would mean rich and poor paying the same tax rate.

Matteo Salvini wants to repatriate 100,000 migrants in his first year in power, followed by another 400,000 during the rest of his five-year administration.

Luigi di Maio advocates a citizenship income for all, conditional on retraining and a minimum pension of €780.

Matteo Renzi’s main pledge is to increase the minimum wage and to raise the budget deficit to 3% of GDP so as to cut taxes and increase investment.

Who will actually govern?

Short of an outright victory of the centre-right, which may be within reach if the Berlusconi-led coalition gets closer to the 40% mark, the most likely outcome could be a coalition of the two mainstream parties: Forza Italia and the Democratic Party, in what could be a replica of Germany’s grand coalition.

Aaron Farrugia considers this to be the most likely outcome. “With no party likely to achieve an overall majority, it is expected that a new coalition government will be formed, which will require time consuming and unpredictable negotiations as we have seen most recently in Germany.”

Arnold Cassola also sees the prospect of a grand coalition between Renzi and Berlusconi as the most likely scenario.

“Since Berlusconi has just declared that his party would not govern with M5S, the post-election scenario could well see the centre-right coalition trying to negotiate with Matteo Renzi’s decimated PD for a centre-right-PD coalition. Having already experienced how unscrupulous Renzi can be in order to get to power, I would not exclude that he would negotiate, but this, I believe, would further split the PD.”

Yet in the unlikely scenario that the M5S single-handedly manages to get more votes than the other two coalitions, the Italian President will have to ask Di Maio to form a government.

This may raise the prospect of a populist coalition between M5S which is allied to the anti-EU UK Independence Party in the European Parliament with the Northern League. An analysis by VoteWatch indicates that this potential coalition “is likely to pursue a more confrontational stance on Eurozone reform and strengthen ties between Rome and Moscow.”

The impact on Malta

The election of a government harbouring the anti-immigrant Northern League may well spell disaster for Malta, re-opening the immigration floodgates, as Italy reverts to its past reluctance to accept migrants rescued in Malta’s vicinity.

“My strong belief is that Muscat and Renzi, who are two of a kind, had a personal agreement that bypassed both the Italian and the Maltese parliaments, with regards to migrant survivors in the Mediterranean, whereby Italy took all on board,” says Arnold Cassola.

Although Italy’s decision to take all migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean route precedes Renzi’s government, the friendship between Muscat and Renzi was underlined by two visits by the Italian leader to affirm his political support for Muscat, first before the 2014 MEP elections and on the eve of the 2017 general election.

But with Matteo Salvini becoming part of a future potential Italian government this may change.

“One can expect Salvini’s strong and vulgar rhetoric about Malta having to take in immigrants to be translated into concrete facts.”

Yet there was a time when the Northern League welcomed Muscat’s strong migration stance. In August 2013 the party’s newspaper La Padania praised Muscat‘s tenacious stance to refuse entry to a tanker carrying 102 migrants rescued at sea in the Libyan search and rescue region.

Parliamentary secretary Aaron Farrugia is more optimistic, noting that common interests are likely to prevail irrespective of who wins.

“The only prediction I am willing to make is that regardless of the eventual outcome Malta and Italy’s strong special relationship will be unaffected.” This is because besides being Malta’s nearest neighbour, “Italy is amongst our strongest allies in Europe.”

The minister who faced the Lega

As Malta’s home affairs minister under the Gonzi administration, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici had a direct experience of dealing with a counterpart hailing from the Northern League – Roberto Maroni, a moderate compared to Salvini.

During that time Malta and Italy repeatedly squabbled over responsibility of migrants rescued in the vicinity of Malta and Lampedusa.

Contacted by MaltaToday, Mifsud Bonnici described the situation as one which was “full of intense political tension”.

Mifsud Bonnici, now the Opposition’s spokesperson for foreign affairs, recognises that “the decision taken by the Italian government led by the Democratic Party”, through which Italy is taking responsibility for “all persons requesting assistance and who were rescued around us” has led to “greater stability”.

Yet Mifsud Bonnici anticipates a radical change if the Northern League is re-elected to government in an alliance led by Silvio Berlusconi, especially if the hawkish anti-immigrant party is given back the Home Affairs Ministry as was the case when Mifsud Bonnici was minister.

“This will represent a big challenge for Malta… The only way forward is for Malta and Italy to immediately tackle this issue by striking a deal which anticipates future problems. In the absence of a clear deal, the future would be beset with difficulties, problems and complications.”

Mifsud Bonnici augurs that politicians learn from past mistakes and open their eyes.

The fact that Malta and Italy remain “very close to each other with regards to European and Mediterranean policies,” could help in avoiding past mistakes.

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