Italy’s parties urged to give voters ‘realistic proposals’

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Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, called on the country’s political parties to offer voters “concrete and realistic proposals” — particularly to improve the troubled jobs market — as they embark on an election campaign that promises to be dominated by fanciful pledges of rapid economic renewal.

Mr Mattarella’s call came during his traditional New Year’s address from the Quirinal Palace in central Rome, in a speech that took on additional significance ahead of a general election on March 4 that carries huge risks for both Italy and the eurozone given the strength of populist forces in the country.

“The scale of the problems in our country strongly requires adequate, concrete and realistic proposals”, Mr Mattarella said. “It’s not my job to give prescriptions, but I want to highlight that work remains the first and most serious social question. For the youth to begin with, but not only for them.”

The campaign has already featured sweeping new tax cut plans and spending proposals from the major opposition parties vying to unseat the ruling centre-left Democratic party, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

Five Star is currently leading the polls, having overtaken the ruling PD in recent months, while the eurosceptic, anti-immigrant Northern League, led by Matteo Salvini, is challenging Mr Berlusconi for dominance of the centre-right. Mr Berlusconi has already called for higher minimum pensions, guaranteed income support for the poor, and a flat tax that would pay for itself through higher growth.

Five Star has vowed to change EU economic policy or hold a referendum on the country’s euro membership, and proposed its own sweeping income support programme. In his speech, Mr Mattarella attempted to offer a dose of optimism to Italians ahead of what could be a difficult year politically. “People have recently spoken of Italy as captured by resentment.

I know a different country, which is generous and full of solidarity . . . Women and men who day after day face the difficulties of life with tenacity and courage and try to overcome them.” But since Mr Mattarella dissolved parliament last Thursday, triggering the March vote, the political sparring and positioning have been in full swing.

“On one side there are the wild promises of Berlusconi and Salvini, the duo of [high bond] spreads and populism. On the other there are Di Maio and Grillo [the Five Star leaders], who want a referendum on the euro and vaccines, promising subsidies and handouts,” Matteo Renzi, the PD leader and former prime minister, wrote on Facebook. “And then there is us.

We worked a lot in these years and made some mistakes, but we are a credible and reliable team,” he added. Mr Salvini was quick to retort, offering a hint of the main fault lines that are likely to dominate the nine-week campaign.

“I’m proud to be a populist, if it means being among the people and trying to resolve their problems. I’d rather listen to ordinary people than resolve the problems of bankers and financiers,” he said. “And if Europe doesn’t work, let’s change it. And if it doesn’t change, let’s say goodbye.” Meanwhile, Mr Berlusconi celebrated New Year’s Eve with a series of tweets which seemed designed as much to prove his personal stamina as to give Italian voters a glimpse of his electoral platform.

“In the morning I wake up very early, I read the papers, then I do gymnastics, I walk and run for 5km and I finish with a half-hour swim. That way I feel in shape. The rest of the day, until late at night, I work: phone calls and meetings,” wrote Mr Berlusconi, who at 81 is making a remarkable comeback to the centre of Italian politics, following sex scandals, a tax fraud conviction, his ousting from office in the midst of a debt crisis, and last year’s open heart surgery.

“Edith Piaf sang Je ne regrette rien, and I have no regrets,” he added. According to a simulation of the distribution of seats in the next parliament by Ixe, the pollster, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Salvini’s centre-right coalition — assuming it sticks together — would win about 292 seats in the lower house, far above the tally of 167 expected from Five Star and the 138 expected from the PD and its allies.

But this would still not be enough for an outright majority, meaning chaotic, inconclusive coalition talks are likely to be the prevailing dynamic in Italy following the vote — possibly resulting in a second election later in the year.

If Five Star comes in first place and outperforms its current polls which see its support stuck at about 28 per cent, it may have a strong case to be offered a chance to form a government. Five Star has traditionally objected to any alliances, but Luigi Di Maio, the prime ministerial candidate for the party, has now reconsidered.

“If Five Star is given a mandate to form a government, we will evaluate the political forces who will be available to help realise our programme,” said Mr Di Maio, who will be ushering in the new year in central Rome with Virginia Raggi, the embattled mayor of the Italian capital.

The most likely political soulmate for Five Star is the Northern League, given their joint dissatisfaction with the euro, desire to tear down EU fiscal rules, dislike of international trade deals and pro-Kremlin foreign policy orientation. But some have also suggested that Five Star might strike a deal with Free and Equal, a leftwing party that has split from Mr Renzi’s PD.

Financial Times