Italy's popular populists

Despite Italy's political turmoil, most people in the country want the election-winning populists to form a government and get to work. They're eager to see the political establishment pack up and leave.

Trionfale market in Rome's Prati district is not a tourist attraction. This is where locals go to stock up on top-quality produce — cheese and meat, including fresh buffalo mozzarella, artichokes and zucchini flowers. The market offers everything a true Italian food enthusiast could want. But times are changing, with more and more young Italians buying groceries in budget supermarkets and eating fast food.

Italy's working people are struggling

"The market used to be bustling; everyone was busy working," recalls 52-year-old Enrico, who runs a sausage and cheese stall. For 26 years now, the market has been his workplace. "Now look around you. There's nobody apart from a few elderly people. I have two daughters who don't work and go to university, I have loans to repay, and I often don't know how I'll make it to the end of the month." He adds that 54 million other Italians have problems just like him.

Read more: The problem is populism, not just Italy

Grocer Enrico has placed his hopes in Italy's populists

These are symptoms of Italy's persistent malaise: its weak welfare system, high youth unemployment, clientelistic labor market, the nepotism in awarding jobs and its dysfunctional public administration. And what we are witnessing now is the "common man," feeling left behind and ignored, standing up to Italy's mainstream parties and privileged elite — by backing the country's populists. Enrico, for instance, says he wrote "dozens of letters to Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's office, asking for help to repair the market roof." But he never received a reply. Enrico now places all his hope on Italy's prospective populist coalition. "I hope that reason will prevail amid this crisis, and that the people's will is respected. They voted for Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini so they should govern." He thinks President Sergio Mattarella should not have interfered in the coalition building and the parties' choice of ministers.

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Enrico is fed up with reading headlines warning of "financial earthquakes" that may result from the rise of Italy's populists. "If we're to stay in the eurozone, Germany and France will need to make fundamental changes. We have so much debt and it makes no sense continuing like before. If we had a referendum on the issue, I'd vote to leave the eurozone," he says.

He does not really consider national bankruptcy a serious threat. After all, he says, Italy is a strong nation. "I want Italy to be on one level with Germany and France." Like many of his compatriots, Enrico suffers from a political inferiority complex, thinking that Italy has been disadvantaged for years. That is why he now supports the head of the far-right party The League, Matteo Salvini, who has been promising to put Italians first. Polls suggest that Salvini's popularity is rapidly increasing and that his party could come in first place if snap election were held.

Read more: Italy and the eurozone: the cloud returns

Enrico is convinced that "we're in this crisis because for 15 years either Berlusconi or the Social Democrats governed this country." He says they did nothing for people. "They only served the banks. And now, I support the populists!" Even if a populist government fails, he thinks it's the only change ordinary Italians have left.

Many other Italians think just like him. Among those stocking up on groceries at Trionfale market, a number are angry and frustrated. "It's unbearable! We're at the mercy of Germany and France," rants someone standing at a stall next to Enrico's. And the owner of a stall specializing in honey and eggs complains that "people voted for the coalition, so it should be in power, and Mattarella should have given them the mandate." A vegetable monger, meanwhile, takes a more moderate view, saying: "I don't know anything about politics, but he should have given the young politicians a chance."

Italy's populist government: Key players

Conte: Novice at the helm

Giuseppe Conte, a little-known law professor with no political experience, was picked by the League and 5-Star Movement (M5S) as their candidate for prime minister. He was forced to temporarily give up his leadership bid after the parties' cabinet selection was initially blocked. However, after the two parties struck a deal with President Sergio Mattarella, Conte was eventually sworn in on June 1.

Italy's populist government: Key players

Mattarella: President with the final say

President Sergio Mattarella faced calls for his impeachment after he prevented the populist alliance from taking office. He singled out its choice for finance minister, Paolo Savona, warning that an openly euroskeptic minister in that position went against the parties' joint promise to simply "change Europe for the better." After the parties agreed to replace Savona, Mattarella gave the go-ahead.

Italy's populist government: Key players

Di Maio: Anti-austerity advocate

M5S chief Luigi Di Maio secured his party 32 percent of the vote in the March election. With the populist M5S-League coalition in power, Di Maio assumed the role of joint deputy prime minister and took over the economic development portfolio. The M5S leader has come under fire for his anti-immigration rhetoric, including calling rescue missions to save migrants from drowning a "sea-taxi service."

Italy's populist government: Key players

Salvini: 'The Captain'

Matteo Salvini is the leader of the anti-immigrant, euroskeptic League, which won 17 percent of the vote in the March election. A former MEP, he and his party have no experience in governing. Salvini has taken on the position of interior minister within Conte's Cabinet. Known for his hostile rhetoric toward immigrants and the EU, Salvini once described the euro a "crime against humanity."

Italy's populist government: Key players

Savona: Anti-euro radical

Paola Savona, initially tipped to lead the Finance Ministry, has called the euro a "German cage" and said that Italy needs a plan to leave the single currency. The 81-year-old's stance won him the backing of most Italian lawmakers but that wasn't enough to stop his appointment being vetoed. In his place steps Giovanni Tria, an economics professor without any previous government experience.

Italy's populist government: Key players

Cottarelli: Temporary caretaker

Carlo Cottarelli was set to become Italy's caretaker prime minster after the M5S-League alliance failed to have its controversial cabinet picks approved. The former IMF economist's time in the spotlight was short-lived, however. Political uncertainty in Italy rocked Europe's financial markets and prompted Mattarella to swiftly renegotiate and approve Salvini and Di Maio's governing coalition.

Italy's populist government: Key players

Berlusconi: Vanquished enabler

Silvio Berlusconi (right) and his Forza Italia entered a four-party electoral alliance including League in the March election that secured the bloc 37 percent. Berlusconi is now upset at his right-wing ally Salvini after the League leader moved to work with M5S. Berlusconi has said he would act as a "reasonable and scrutinizing opposition."

Only one older woman disagrees: "I could pull my hair out! Everyone wants to get into power but nobody wants to properly govern. Mattarella did the absolutely right thing." But her opinion isn't shared by most Italians. Some 60 percent favor a populist coalition, and most are critical of the president.

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Fearing a financial crash

Political analyst Francesco Galietti, sitting in his elegant Rome office boasting designer furniture, offers a more sober analysis of the situation. He attaches great importance to the role of the financial markets. Galietti used to work as a consultant for Italy's Ministry of Economy and Finance. He says "the markets are waiting for a signal indicating a robust fiscal policy and against leaving the eurozone. Snap elections and the uncertainty they entail would be a very bad signal." He thinks an anti-establishment coalition could calm markets provided it does not decide to drastically increase spending. Investors, argues Galietti, expect the new government to have a proactive strategy for reducing Italy's national debt. 

Unlike some in the European Union, Galietti is not worried Italy will bring the eurozone to its knees. "I don't think [the populists] will create a disaster. Some have this fear that Salvini wants to provoke a crash. But I don't believe that." However, he says, the confrontation is getting out of control. He says it's now "the Palazzo versus the people," by which he means President Mattarella, whose official residence is the Palazzo del Quirinale, and who, at least on paper, should be impartial and not embroiled in a fight with Italy's populists.

Galietti is not worried Italy will bring about the end of the eurozone

Galietti says that if you want to provoke a political confrontation, then you need an enemy, but because Berlusconi has been sidelined politically and the Social Democrats have brought about their own demise, the populists are now turning to Mattarella. "He took the situation nuclear because he has brought a potential referendum on the euro into the realm of possibility," says Galietti. He drew comparisons between the current political climate in Italy and Brexit. But in the case of Italy, the outcome could be even worse, "because Italy is in the eurozone," he says.

Anger directed towards Berlin has a long tradition in Italian politics because people in the country have long held the belief that the EU belongs to Germany, Galietti explained, noting that Di Maio and Salvini were not stoking a new sentiment.

When confronted with the prospect of Italy's populist coalition coming into power, Galietti says that frustration among people in the country is greater than the fear of what might happen. But that could quickly change, he cautioned, particularly among supporters of The League in northern Italy, where many small businesses have close links with Germany. "They have the potential to lose, if things collapse. But when you intimidate people, they react easily," Galietti says, adding that is exactly what has happened in Italy.