Economic and political unrest in Italy, explained

An October 2018 viral video showed an escalator in Rome malfunctioning, injuring dozens of people. The video captured the escalator suddenly speeding up, causing a pileup of people at the bottom. This video is a glimpse into the much larger infrastructure crisis in Rome. The historic city is home to rats, seagulls, and wild boars taking advantage of the heaps of trash piled on streets, the result of poor garbage collection. Last summer, a young woman died when her moped hit an unfilled pothole — citizens have taken to drawing circles around potholes to warn drivers. Public transportation is also often unavailable, as even bus drivers go on frequent strikes to protest the state of the infrastructure. What used to be a beautiful historic city lies in ruins.

Political unrest

Rome’s residents blame these infrastructure issues on the leadership of Virginia Raggi, the city’s mayor elected in 2016. Raggi was elected under the promise she would fix the problems plaguing Rome, but these issues have only worsened since she — and her party — took office. Her party, the Five Star Movement (M5S), is a populist movement that formed a national coalition government in June under Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. M5S appealed to the disillusioned youth in Italy, tired of poverty and lack of jobs. While M5S refuses to define its platform as left or right, even disavowing its “populist” label, many of its policies favor the far-right; the party gained votes by campaigning on an anti-immigrant platform, an increasingly common trend in Europe.

M5S’s far-right tendencies are intensified by the Lega Nord, the other half of the current coalition government. Though M5S and Lega collaborate in Italy’s parliament, Lega’s stance on immigration is even more conservative than M5S. Earlier this year, Matteo Salvini, the General Secretary of Lega and Italy’s deputy prime minister, caused a diplomatic incident when he accused Tunisia of sending convicts to Europe for the sole purpose of committing crimes. Salvini also announced a census and a registry for all Romani people living in Italy. His new approved “Salvini Decree” is a piece of legislation that will take protections away from migrants to make deportations easier and prevent refugees with prior convictions from entering Italy. Both parties are firm in their Euroscepticism, but the more extreme measures espoused by Lega, such as discontinuing the use of the euro, have recently gained popularity.

Economic hardship

The problems facing Rome aren’t unique to the city. The current populist government received its majority because citizens believed M5S and Lega would be able to carry out necessary reforms and infrastructure improvements but, with Italy and the E.U. at a stalemate and rising political instability in the country, the economic problems have only worsened.

The M5S-Lega government’s unwillingness to work with the European Union led to a recent budget face-off. Earlier in 2018, the E.U. demanded that Italy redesign its budget to curb spending and meet E.U. standards, to which Italy’s government refused to accede. In response, E.U. budget enforcers threatened to implement E.U. sanctions. Though faced with these potential penalties, Salvini insisted that the budget, which included programs promised to Italians during the last election, remain unchanged. Italy finally reached a compromise with the European Commission to keep its deficit to just 2.04 percent of GDP — a decrease from the previous target of increases 2.4 percent — at the cost of a proposed universal basic income scheme and a proposal to slash the retirement age.

The emphasis on fiscal prudence may be worth short-term loss for Italy, the Eurozone’s third-largest economy. As of June, Italy’s national debt sits at 132 percent of GDP, the second highest in the Eurozone — only exceeded by Greece. However, continued pressure from the E.U. to maintain a healthy fiscal balance may erode the Italian governing coalition’s ability to give the people the programs they want, which may chip away at the popularity of the current governing parties.

Roma Dice Basta

Now, the citizens of Rome have had enough of the government. Just before Mayor Raggi acquittal of abuse of power charges by a court in November, crowds gathered on the streets in protest, using the slogan “Roma Dice Basta” — “Rome says enough.” Protestors waved construction netting and carried signs that said “Raggi Unfit Mayor” and “Meno Raggi, Più Bici” (less Raggi, more bikes). Rome has been in decline for years, but now citizens feel like it is unlivable.

With the rapidly deteriorating conditions in Italy, it seems inevitable that the country, like others in Europe, will lean farther right, favoring Lega over the less conservative M5S in the snap elections slated for 2019. If the European Union and the Italian government cannot compromise on a budget, Italy could vote to discontinue the use of the euro, or even pull out of the European Union altogether — not inconceivable in light of 2017’s Brexit. Citizens have lost faith in the government, and whether or not a new government led by Lega will be able to deliver anything more than empty promises, the party will quickly find itself in a position of power.

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Author: Ananya Murthy

Ananya Murthy is a staff writer at The Compass. She is a freshman in the Elliott School of International Affairs interested in international economics and human rights issues. In addition to writing for the Compass, she is a member of the GW Mock Trial team and of University Singers.