Tuesday 29 May 2018 4:59 pm

Italy's populists will take advantage of this chaos for all it is worth

As a spectator sport, Italian politics rarely disappoints.

The spectacle of the radical, anti-establishment 5 Star Movement stitching together a plan for government with the far-right League has been gripping and alarming in equal measure.

How would sweeping tax cuts sit alongside a massive expansion of welfare? How would markets react to a debt-laden economy throwing off the shackles of austerity? How would the European Union respond to the proposed deportation of hundreds of thousands of migrants?

The decision of Italy's President Matterella to seek the appointment of a technocratic Prime Minister with no electoral backing does not render these questions obsolete, it merely delays the point at which the answers will become clear – for the forces unleashed and marshalled by the fledgling coalition of populists and radicals will not disappear simply because the constitutional head of state has put a spanner in the works.

Indeed, last night the two party leaders were back on familiar territory, railing against the establishment and encouraging their supporters out on to the streets. Polling from just a few months ago showed that 82 per cent of Italians do not trust parliament, the same percentage think the country's economic situation is bad and 77 per cent agreed that elected officials “don't care what people like me think.” That figure will likely increase in light of recent developments.

With Italy now set for another election, the insurgent parties (who between them scored a majority of votes just a few months ago) will capitalise on the current political chaos for all it is worth. 5 Star and the League could have negotiated a new proposition with the President, but perhaps it suits their objectives to throw their hands in the air and ride a wave of public anger all the way to another election.

Matterella is constitutionally entitled to do what he has done, but he is playing with fire.

As Machiavelli observed 500 years ago, “When you disarm people, you commence to offend them and show that you distrust them either through cowardice or lack of confidence, and both of these opinions generate hatred.”

Those who voted for the populist parties will feel as if the establishment is attempting to disarm them, and they are unlikely to go quietly back into their box.