It’s not easy to discern a political “crisis” in a country that has had at least 64 governments since World War II, but at the least, the Italian president’s unexpected decision to block the government proposed by two populist parties qualifies as a daring gamble. How it plays out could have major ramifications for Europe.
In normal times, the president of Italy plays a largely ceremonial role in his gilded Quirinal Palace. But when two disparate anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the League, came to him with plans to form a coalition that included proposals for enormous new spending and a finance minister openly hostile to the shared European currency, President Sergio Mattarella, a 76-year-old Sicilian expert on constitutional law and former government minister, stepped in on Sunday night and said no.
Technically, President Mattarella blocked only the appointment of Paolo Savona, an 82-year-old economist tapped to be finance minister, on the ground that his covert plans to exit the euro posed a risk “for Italian families and their savings.” But the impasse over Mr. Savona prompted the coalition’s lowest-common-denominator choice for prime minister, an obscure law professor named Giuseppe Conte, to bow out, leading the president to ask Carlo Cottarelli, a solidly pro-Europe and pro-austerity economist and former official of the International Monetary Fund, to form a nonelected government. Mr. Cottarelli said new elections would be held in early 2019, though they could be held as early as September if he fails to survive a confidence vote.
Opponents of the coalition cheered Mr. Mattarella’s action as a courageous blow against the dangerous rise of populism and irresponsible programs that would have vastly increased public spending in a country already saddled with a 2.3-trillion-euro ($2.7 trillion) debt. The spurned parties, which had struggled since national elections on March 4 to overcome profound differences and form their coalition, complained of unwarranted presidential interference in a legitimate political choice. The leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, called for the president to be impeached, while the League’s leader, Matteo Salvini, threatened to organize a march on Rome.
There is no real danger of Mr. Mattarella being removed or Rome sacked. A more ominous response came from financial markets, where yields on Italian bank bonds rose sharply on fears of another election, potentially with an even stronger showing by populist parties and a new threat of Italy giving up the euro. Markets in the United States shuddered as well at the prospect of more instability in Europe, with the Dow Jones industrial average down nearly 400 points, or 1.58 percent. Political analysts deemed it unlikely that the left-leaning Five Star, with its roots in the poor south, and the far-right League, based in the rich north, would maintain a partnership in the next election, and there is no way to predict what might emerge from another round of fierce campaigning.
However spooked the markets were, they had been equally wary of the coalition and its grandiose spending plans, and given the mutual hostility of the coalition partners, their government might not have survived for long. Mr. Mattarella’s stand, at least, gives Italian voters a second chance to weigh their options after glimpsing what their earlier choices might mean. That’s something some Brexit voters in Britain, or Trump voters in the United States, might have welcomed.
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