Italian Politics, A Mix Of Pro Wrestling And Turkish Coffee

Luigi Di Maio, Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini at a press conference
Luigi Di Maio, Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini at a press conference
Ugo Magri

It started as an unlikely marriage of convenience: after Italy's elections in March 2018, the far-right League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) formed a coalition government. Fighting over the choice of prime minister, the two parties settled for an unknown political figure: Giuseppe Conte, a lawyer whose 12-page résumé raised more than a few questions. Matteo Salvini, the League leader, and Luigi Di Maio of M5S both became deputy prime ministers, with the former also taking over as interior minister and the latter as minister of economic development.

The M5S began on top, having gained 32% of the national vote. The League was the major party in the center-right coalition, with 17% of the vote. Together, they had a majority in the government. But they appealed to voters with different tastes and needs: M5S was popular in the south and among more progressive people with a distaste for the establishment; the League's natural electorate is among anti-immigrant, nationalist voters, mainly in the North of the country.

The two parties clashed over several issues: the environment, migration, LGBT+ rights. The spats within this yellow-green coalition (known as such for the respective parties' colors) have even spilled over into the campaign for next month's European elections, with Salvini threatening to pull the plug on the government.

But as the coalition keeps going, with the League gaining ground among voters, and the M5S losing momentum after compromising on several issues, La Stampa's Ugo Magri has a theory about the nature of the internal combat:


TURIN — In the Roman palaces that matter most, the following idea circulates: the conflict between Di Maio and Salvini, amplified by the media as a boxing match, is actually more similar to professional wrestling. Unlike in boxing, wrestlers do not hit each other seriously, but stage a fight to entertain the paying public. Children, especially in the U.S., laugh at the sight of these great masked beasts who take terrible blows and immediately get back up as if nothing had happened, ready to hit back.

Italian politics has become like a wrestling match — Photo: Sam Litvin

There you have it: Italian politics has become a sort of wrestling match where the conflict is staged and concerns only marginal issues, set up to capture attention and distract people from the many real ills that Italy is facing. And all of this would last until a reconciliation immediately after the European elections, in order to continue the journey hand in hand.

This at least is the prediction of some insiders. So far there have been no signs of a real crisis such as to raise the alarm, only skirmishes aimed at entertaining. And yet, of course, anything can happen. Even in wrestling it sometimes happens that, in the excitement of the make-believe, someone lands a forbidden blow and at that point a real fight breaks out. Violent games always involve a percentage of risk. So the deputy prime ministers will have to be careful, stopping at the right time so as not hurt each other too much. Will they succeed? This is the big question right now.

Before drinking, you have to wait for the coffee to settle.

Di Maio and Salvini are just like Turkish coffee — Photo: Müslüm Bayburs

There is another metaphor circulating, this one among pollsters, to describe the current state of affairs: Turkish coffee. For those who have been to the Bosphorus, it is a very simple recipe: you boil water, pour it into a cup and add coffee and sugar, maybe even a touch of cardamom. But before drinking, you have to wait for the coffee to settle. Same procedure with Di Maio and Salvini. At first there was so much anxiety, mixed with curiosity: it was not clear what these two could come up with together, but the desire to put them to the test prevailed.

According to pollsters, the waiting phase is now over. After almost a year in power, the yellow-green mixture begins to settle in people's opinion. Day after day Italians have come to understand what they can expect, for better or for worse, from the deputy prime ministers and those around them. Citizens are getting an idea of the potential and limitations of this strange alliance. But once their idea will settle, there will be no going back. As with Turkish coffee, it takes time before you can taste it. But once you do, and if you don't like it, you'll never drink it again.

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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