Even though Italians are more than used to their government lurching from one turmoil to another, anger is emanating from backers of a short-lived coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League.
“Our lives have become a game in the hands of people who have no scruples,” said Marina Mari, who voted for M5S in the 4 March general election that resulted in a hung parliament. “They [the coalition] played us – we understand that now, but we didn’t before.”
The coalition – which would have created Italy’s first populist government – ran into a roadblock in its bid for power on Sunday night when the president, Sergio Mattarella, vetoed its pick for economy minister – Paolo Savona, an 81-year-old Eurosceptic also described as “radically anti-German”.
While both M5S and the Lega are traditionally Eurosceptic, their individual and joint programmes called for an exit from neither the European single currency nor the EU. Instead, the coalition’s objective was to seek a renegotiation of European treaties. Giuseppe Conte, the law professor nominated to lead the administration, who resigned on Sunday evening after Mattarella vetoed Savona, had said Italy would remain within the EU.
Francesco Giavazzi, an economics professor at Bocconi University in Milan, said that by backing Savona, Salvini intended to ensure the coalition’s bid for government failed and that fresh elections would be called. “His tactic from day one was to go back to elections. He did it in such a way he knew the president would refuse.”
Salvini’s popularity has increased since the March vote, but it remains to be seen if his gamble will pay off. “Salvini is a very good campaigner who has never finished anything in his life,” said Giavazzi. “He knows that if he campaigns, he wins, but if you give him a real job to do it soon becomes clear that he’s unable to do it.”
About 57% of Italian voters wanted a government whose programme included generous tax cuts, a universal basic income and a raft of hardline policies against illegal immigrants.
After the events of Sunday and Monday, what they have now is another temporary, unelected prime minister who is a europhile. Carlo Cottarelli, a former director at the International Monetary Fund, has been tasked by Mattarella with forming an interim government.
His administration is expected to lose a vote of confidence in parliament, meaning new elections could be held as early as September.
“We feel conned and trapped – we wanted a revolution,” said Roberto Percuaio, who lives in Orvieto, Umbria, and backed the populist coalition. “What I can’t understand is why Mattarella rejected a government formed by a technocrat [Giuseppe Conte] only to appoint another technocrat the next morning?”
The outcome has left others feeling equally baffled, and with little appetite for a fresh vote. “Did they do it on purpose?” asked Federico Badia, an artisan shoemaker in the central Umbria region. “Now I’m starting to think we would be better off without a prime minister – we have the law, the constitution, the country is still working. This could be the next generation of politics – no prime minister.”
While most anger seems to be directed at Italy’s political leaders, there are fears that Mattarella’s veto could lead Italians to support any renewed calls for a referendum on the euro. Many blame the currency for a drop in the standard of living since 1999, but most believe the task of extracting the country from it is insurmountable.
“The politicians are the ones who are supposed to have the brilliant minds, so it should be their job to find a solution – not to leave the euro but to help make life easier for citizens and to help Italy be more competitive within the eurozone,” said Badia.
Europe’s populists, who were quick to hail the electoral triumph of M5S and the far-right League in March as a fresh win for anti-establishment politics and a blow to the European project, have been generally quiet on the parties’ setback.
But Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National, took to Twitter to denounce an EU coup.
“What is happening in Italy is a coup d’état, a hold-up of the Italian people by illegitimate institutions. Confronted with this denial of democracy, popular anger is mounting across Europe.”
The party’s vice-president, Nicola Bay, told French radio that Mattarella had carried out “an institutional coup”. Rather than serving the Italian constitution, he said, the Italian president was “at the service of the EU and the Commission”.
Gianluca Arcimboldo, a bookshop owner, said that while many Italians harked back to the golden era of the lira, he believed the country would not be strong economically enough to withstand a euro exit now.
Franco Pietrantozzi, a writer, said there was no going back on the euro, but Italians felt a lot of resentment towards the EU because of it. “The problem was entering the euro in the first place. When the monetary change happened the cost of everything went up overnight,” he said. “But our politicians didn’t object to it, they just did it, like sheep.”
Giavazzi believes if it came to a vote, a large majority would back staying in the currency. “It’s mostly the older generation who complain about it, the younger ones don’t know any different,” he said. “People aren’t stupid – Italy is a country with a very large amount of private savings and most don’t want to revert to being paid in lira.”