Now here’s a word I never expected to use in relation to Italy’s famously turbulent politics: heartening. But that is exactly how they seem at the moment. For the preceding two or three years, mind, Italian politics have been both fractured and fractious. Like many other countries there has been an alarming rise in support for populist right-wing parties resulting in a highly polarised political environment. So it would have been easy to imagine that the ongoing coronavirus crisis would provide fertile territory for opposition parties of all persuasions in which to sow the seeds of further discord and discontent and seek to de-stabilise or even bring down the government.
This is, by the way, a fragile coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, aka M5S) and their previously bitterest rivals, the Democratic Party (Partito Democratico – PD). It was hastily cobbled together last autumn after right-wing fire brand Matteo Salvini walked away from the previous, even more fragile coalition between his hard-right La Lega party and the M5S in a bid to capitalise on his popularity in the polls and force the President of the Republic to call a general election which would enable Salvini and the other parties of the hard right to storm to victory. The President, however, chose to obey the constitution rather than give in to Salvini’s political ambitions and invited the two largest parties in parliament, M5S and the left-leaning PD, to try and form a new coalition first. It didn’t take as long as might have been expected for these two sworn enemies to come together, presumably on the basis that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’, but their uneasy coalition was never likely to be much more than a marriage of convenience, and there was little hope that, under the premiership of M5S’s politically inexperienced leader Giuseppe Conte, it would last the course, especially with Salvini on the side-lines still doing his noisy damnedest to undermine it at every turn.
Under the measured, spin-free leadership of this sober and statesmanlike former professor of law at the University of Florence, the government’s approach to the current public health emergency and the stringent quarantine measures it put in place in response to the crisis have enjoyed unparalleled support that appears to have transcended party allegiances and ideological differences. In excess of 95% of the population approve of the comprehensive programme of restrictions that have effectively brought social, economic, cultural and spiritual life to a near total halt. And this despite the fact that the government is not simply ‘advising’ or ‘encouraging’ citizens to observe social distancing rules: it’s the law. The government is not just ‘requesting’ or even ‘imploring’ everyone to stay at home: it’s the law. And if people break it, they are subject to an automatic fine of €280 for being outside without sufficient justification, rising to €3000 (or €5000 in the worst hit areas in the north) for those having tested positive for the virus leaving the house. Of course there are rule-breakers, and the number of fines being issued is rising, but in percentage terms, they remain tiny. Some infractions will doubtless have been committed in honest error, too; a good-faith misinterpretation of the rules rather than wilful or intentional breach (not that this makes any difference to the transmission of the virus, I know) especially since local law enforcement agencies have been granted a degree of discretion in terms of what is or is not ‘necessary’ when it comes to leaving the house, or exactly what ‘close to home’ means when it comes to taking exercise.
Throughout all this, however, the opposition parties have remained remarkably quiet. Yes, one party or another claims it would have been more stringent in respect of one regulation, or more relaxed in respect of another; that it would have taken certain steps sooner or taken others later. But that really is the extent of it. Partly, I’m sure, because there really was little else Conte could realistically have done, but also – I would like to think, at least – because there is an unspoken acknowledgement that this is a national crisis of such seriousness that only unity of purpose and unity of resolve will see the country safely through the emergency that is still unfolding.
It will be interesting to see how long this political ceasefire will hold, though. For after nearly a month under lockdown, and despite the €25bn of assistance that has already been made available to families and businesses (as well as €340bn in loan guarantees, with pledges of more to come) the economic impact of the restrictions is really beginning to hurt, especially in deprived areas in the south. Here there are the first stirrings of discontent with the level of financial support being made available to assist those who have been furloughed or laid off, and how difficult and time-consuming it is proving to access it. There are reports – still mercifully rare – of looting, and in a handful of places, armed police have been called in to prevent increasingly desperate people stealing from supermarkets – which remain well-stocked here, incidentally.
So with the curve both for new cases and for fatalities at last beginning to flatten, if not yet actually to fall, Conte’s hardest test may still be to come. He needs to ensure that the country’s resolve does not falter and that it doesn’t lower its guard prematurely, while simultaneously ensuring that the economic burden of maintaining that resolve does not become so weighty that he loses the people’s goodwill – and their self-discipline – and risks undoing the progress that has been made towards overcoming the virus and mitigating its effects on the economy.
The law professor has already learnt to be a statesman in record time. Now he must learn to be a tightrope walker, and probably a juggler, too.
Image of Prime Minister Conte signing the lockdown decree of 11th March 2020 courtesy of http://www.governo.it