It’s Been 25 Years Since Anyone in Italy Trusted the Government
Italian populism is still fueled by corruption scandals that are over two decades old.
Italy’s new Cabinet is now three months old. The Five Star Movement-Lega coalition, which was sworn in in early June, has been described as the first fully populist government post-World War II Western Europe. Some analysts predicted that it would be short-lived, a Cabinet designed only to last through the summer. The Five Star Movement and the Lega, or League, party, so went the argument, were too different to stick together for long. The former is a nebulous group drawing most of its votes from the left and enjoying popularity especially among the unemployed in the less-developed south. The latter, based in the wealthy north, is a far-right party that emerged from the fringes by cannibalizing the mainstream right. The alliance seemed like a desperate move, forged hastily after months of unfruitful negotiations.
It now seems the populists are here to stay. The coalition is ranking high in the polls, as are both parties individually. What accounts for the solidity of this marriage between odd bedfellows? One possible explanation is that, despite their apparent differences, the Five Stars and Lega have a lot in common in terms of their peculiar approach to politics. Both parties claim to represent the true people against a decadent elite; both profess a disdain for professional politicians, an attitude described as “antipolitica,” or “anti-politics”; and both have been proponents of “giustizialismo,” or judicial zealotry—the sort of “lock them up” attitude linked to tough-on-crime crusades, never mind that both parties have had their own share of corruption scandals.
Of course, this raises the question of why Italy was so vulnerable to this style of populism in the first place. Some blame two decades of Silvio Berlusconi, the flamboyant tycoon-turned-prime minister who anticipated some of the eccentric leadership qualities of U.S. President Donald Trump. Others say it’s because, unlike Germany, Italy never fully confronted its fascist past. But the most persuasive argument is the least understood outside of Italy. It traces the roots of the present political climate to Mani Pulite, a corruption scandal that shook Italy’s political system 25 years ago.
From the end of World War II until the early 1990s, Italy had been consistently ruled by Christian Democracy, a centrist party that enjoyed America’s support, while the Communist Party, supported by the Soviet Union, was the main opposition force: It was a small-scale reproduction of the Cold War. Neither the Communists nor the Christian Democrats alone ever got close to get a majority in Parliament, but the latter could count on minor parties as allies: the Socialists, the Social Democrats, and the Liberals.
Corruption was endemic in the Christian Democracy party and its allies—and the Communists were no saints either—but the delicate equilibrium behind Italy’s mini Cold War rendered them untouchable, almost above the law: “It was ‘natural’ and ‘normal’ that you couldn’t look into certain drawers. No one could open them, and when someone tried to, the drawers would immediately be closed again,” Gherardo Colombo, one of Mani Pulite’s top judges, wrote in his 2015 memoir.
But when the Berlin Wall fell, the parties lost their invulnerability. The decisive corruption scandal erupted in early 1992, when an entrepreneur in Milan, Luca Magni, refused to pay a bribe to a Socialist politician: Instead, he reported him to the police, something unthinkable a few years prior. A pool of three prosecutors in Milan—Colombo, Piercamillo Davigo, and Antonio Di Pietro—started investigating and uncovered a system of institutionalized kleptocracy: All major parties were using bribes to finance their activities. Within three years, more than 3,000 people, mostly politicians and businessmen, were indicted in Milan alone—1,200 of them were eventually convicted. And all of Italy’s major parties were gone for good: the Christian Democrats and their allies swept by the scandal, the Communists by the Soviet collapse.
Mani Pulite spanned several years, but its most crucial year was 1993, when the powerful Socialist leader Bettino Craxi was indicted. By then, the investigations had become extremely popular—and politicians extremely unpopular. Thousands of fans encouraged the prosecutors in Milan with fax messages, a popular movement nicknamed “popolo dei fax,” the fax people. When Craxi was first accused, a crowd gathered in front his residence in Rome and threw coins at him: “Will you take these, too?” they chanted mockingly. Craxi fled the country in 1995 and died in exile.
So, what does a 1993 corruption scandal have to do with the populists running Italy in 2018?
First, it created a political vacuum from which Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and the Lega (back then the Lega Nord, or Northern League) emerged. But some commentators claim that the connection between Mani Pulite and today’s political zeitgeist is deeper. Pierluigi Battista, a centrist columnist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper, and Mattia Feltri, a liberal analyst for La Stampa, have both argued that the 1990s anti-corruption rage planted the seeds for the anti-elite rhetoric that has brought the current Cabinet to power.
It was during Mani Pulite that “the idea that the people, as opposed to the corrupt elite, are the best part of society took root,” Feltri said in a telephone conversation. The columnist, who wrote a book about 1993, argued that the political class became a “scapegoat for all of Italy’s problems,” including its bad economy: “People became convinced that power was intrinsically corrupt, and politicians became convinced that the best way defeat their opponents was to accuse them of corruption. By embracing this mindset, Italy committed a political suicide.”
This mentality is especially evident in the Five Star Movement. Now the largest party in the Parliament, it was founded in 2009 by Beppe Grillo, a comedian who used to rally crowds against corrupt politicians and the media. In 2007 and 2008, Grillo organized two Vaffanculo Days (Fuck You Days), in which his fans gathered in the thousands to vent their disgust at the ruling class. Feltri believes that the self-righteous anger of crowds throwing coins at Craxi paved the way for the 2007 “Fuck You” movement that morphed into the Five Stars.
And yet simply blaming Mani Pulite for Italy’s present troubles is shortsighted. Italy would have been better off without the investigation, so goes the argument, because it created antipolitica. But those who hold this view fail to answer a crucial question: What was the alternative? Italy’s pre-1990s political system, after all, was corrupt to the bone.
A frequent anti-Mani Pulite argument is that, because corruption was not the exception but the rule, arresting corrupt politicians amounted to a coup against the political class. But Colombo, the prosecutor, insists that closing an eye was out of question: “The law is the law even if everybody breaks it! In Italy, [a civil law country], you cannot cancel a law just because it is obsolete,” he said in a telephone conversation. Now retired, Colombo added that he and his colleagues never intended to send the message that politics was inherently wrong and that the people were morally superior to the elite: “True, as a consequence of our investigation, a mindset emerged that stigmatized politics per se. But that was because a part of the public was looking for a scapegoat. We were doing our job, which was to assess individual responsibilities.”
The question is: Could it be done without paving the way to a culture of perennial resentment? Colombo believes that Italy’s political system is to blame: “The fact that this systematic corruption was exposed should have prompted the political system to reform itself, which didn’t happen.” It’s worth noting that Mani Pulite did not solve corruption as a widespread problem. In fact, some of the figures who first jumped on the anti-corruption bandwagon eventually turned out to be, well, corrupt.
Berlusconi himself, who was first elected in 1994 by presenting himself as an anti-corruption enthusiast, was convicted of tax fraud. Colombo’s colleague Di Pietro entered politics in 1998 and founded his own party, Italia dei Valori, which played a crucial role in Italy’s center-left politics—until a corruption scandal banished it into irrelevance six years ago. In 1993, Lega’s anti-corruption protests went so far that a member of parliament showed up at the Lower House waving a noose. And yet the former party leader Umberto Bossi was convicted in 2017 for stealing party funds, and the current leader, Matteo Salvini, is being prosecuted for the unlawful detention of migrants.
In the end, Colombo said, Mani Pulite “didn’t solve the corruption problem.” Despite the overarching anti-corruption rhetoric, Italian politics is still corrupt “on every level,” he said, from top politicians taking bribes to the general public cheating on their taxes. The paradox is that Italians are constantly “complaining about politicians who repeat, at the top, the same behaviors that many ordinary citizens demonstrate, on a smaller scale, on a daily basis.” For now, Salvini’s popularity has shielded him from the anti-corruption rage. But it’s probably only a matter of time until Italians blame their present government for fitting into the same pattern.