Italy's would-be coalition partners need more time to thrash out a government deal. Based on the 5-Star Movement's rule in Parma, locals have little hope for success on a national level, as Megan Williams discovered.
Almost six years ago to the day, in the Parmesan cheese and prosciutto capital of Parma, Federico Pizzarotti became Italy's first mayor from the populist 5-Star Movement (M5S), the party now poised to govern Italy with the support of the smaller League party.
Pizzarotti swept to a surprise victory in the prosperous northern Italian city on an anti-corruption campaign pegged to a main promise: to stop the opening of a controversial trash incinerator. Yet one year later, the incinerator was fully operational burning garbage. Faced with the demands of managing a trash crisis, Pizzarotti had been forced to compromise. And the push back was fierce — not from the citizens of Parma, but from M5S co-founder comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo. Soon after, Pizzarotti's days of shouting anti-politician slogans and taking orders from Grillo were over. He remained as mayor, but left M5S.
Today, as Italy finds itself on the verge of forming a new coalition government with the M5S and the far-right, anti-immigrant League, the election of Pizzarotti provides both a useful future narrative and a cautionary tale.
"The only way Pizzarotti was able to run the city and do some good things was to break with Grillo," says Laura Zavota, 69, a retired pediatric heart specialist. "If the 5-Stars are not able to run a simple city like Parma, how can they even think they'll manage to run a country like Italy?"
Little trust in M5S
Italy's political landscape is fractured and fraught and governing, observers agree, will require a shift from populism to pragmatism.
But it's Zavota's concern about the M5S leadership structure — one that requires elected members to sign a contract that binds them to the rules of the movement — that has most worried.
"It's difficult to accept that our government might be formed by the 5-Stars," says Cristina Battistini, standing inside the small shop of design objects she runs in the historic center of Parma. "We don't know them and worse, we don't know who they're really accountable to," she says.
But others like Vittoria Petrazzoli, 32, who runs the newspaper kiosk in Parma's elegant main square, says despite not being a supporter of the movement, she is keen to have them form a government.
"The important thing is that they make up their minds fast," says Petrazzoli. "There's just so much to do. The school system needs to be fixed. We need investment in research and development. By dragging this out, they're showing themselves to be just like all the other politicians who have contributed to the ruin Italy."
The frustration, shared by many Italians, is particularly ironic when aimed at a movement that has presented itself as the antithesis to "other politicians."
M5S burst onto the political scene almost a decade ago as a movement set on ridding the Italian parliament of mainstream politicians it decried as overpaid and corrupt. In the March 4 election, it ran as a stand-alone party, emerging as Italy's most powerful political force, with 33 percent of the vote. The League, which received 17 percent, triumphed in a center-right coalition hitherto dominated by former leader Silvio Berlusconi, who has reluctantly lent his support to the coalition.
Is Italy heading for new elections?
Neither the M5S nor the center-right alliance received enough votes to win a majority in parliament. Hence this last-ditch attempt to avoid a technical government composed of university professors or go to a new general election. The latter is an option which Italy's head of state, Sergio Mattarella, said he would be forced to pursue if Italian parties were not able to solve the puzzle of a credible government configuration.
The initial love-in between M5S leader Luigi Di Maio (left) and Matteo Salvini, the head of the League has turned sour
Administrative law expert Giacinto Della Cananea, who advised M5S on the compatibility between the movement and the League or the Democratic Party (with whom negotiations failed), says the movement has important points of convergence with the League that could aid in solidifying a government deal.
"Along with putting fighting corruption at the forefront of their campaigns, they both emphasize strong political change with regards to Italy's relationship with European Union and see the EU fiscal constraints on Italy as too restrictive," says Della Cananea.
To reduce Italy's growing poverty, M5S insists on a guaranteed basic income. The League, on the other hand, has vowed to introduce a flat tax of 15 percent and reduce public spending. Both parties want to dismantle a recent pension reform and allow people to retire early.
Yet all — or any combination of these promises — would entail impossibly high costs for Italy's already troubled finances and crippling debt. And any unilateral attempts on Italy's part to push a sovereign agenda would risk further weakening its standing in international markets and its role in Europe's political cohesion.
Read more: Opinion: Italy's uncertain political future
Tackling the economy and immigration
Then there's the especially thorny matter of controlling the flux of migrants into Italy, a hot button election issue that helped bolster support for the League in particular.
"I don't think anyone will suggest stop saving migrants at sea, but debates about whether to invest more heavily in Africa or to strike agreements with North African countries [to stop people from leaving] are unresolved," says Della Cananea. "These are issues that will take months to work out, also because there are international agreements and technical questions to deal with."
Whatever deal the two parties are able to strike to co-govern, in a show of their populist roots, both have promised to put the accord to their own supporters for approval — M5S through an online vote; the League in informal referenda in piazzas, mostly in the north of Italy, where its base lies.
In Parma, one citizen is particularly keen for the two parties to find an agreement and begin the complex task of actually governing: Federico Pizzarotti. After he left M5S, he was re-elected in 2017 for a second term as Mayor of Parma.
"I hope they have the chance to govern," he recently said. "Because populism is deflated by putting it to the test of reality."