Why Podemos Or Syriza Scenarios Won't Happen In Italy

Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian Five-Star Movement
Beppe Grillo, leader of the Italian Five-Star Movement
Giuseppe Salvaggiulo

TURIN — Italian politicians from very different backgrounds have been trying to capitalize on last week's victory of Spain's anti-austerity party Podemos in regional elections: from centrist Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and the populist Northern League leader Matteo Salvini, to the banker-turned-cabinet minister Corrado Passera and leftist LGBT activist and governor of the Puglia region Nichi Vendola.

That's quite a list. Stll, even as some international observers ask if Italy is the next country to be swept up by the anti-austerity wave, there is clearly no "Italian Podemos" on the horizon. And what's left is just more bickering.

"The two Matteos (Renzi and Salvini) are pathetic," an outraged Vendola tweeted last week.

An identical dynamic occurred four months ago following the Greek elections: Suddenly, every other Italian politician was buddies with Alexis Tsipras. But the one Italian party truly inspired by Syriza, called The Other Europe, collected only 1.1 million votes at the European elections, barely surpassing the minimum quorum of 4%. By now, it's all but shattered.

Massimo Cacciari, a professor of philosophy and former mayor of Venice, says while whole new ideological alliances are forming elsewhere in Europe, Italy is "still using old categories" in its political formations.

"Inside Podemos, there is everything: Some components of the extreme left like in Syriza, movements similar to our 5-Star Movement (populist and anti-EU), even some elements of a more traditional left party. They group together as different ways to beat a similar crisis."

Grillo factor

So why is such a political renewal possible in Greece and Spain, but not in Italy? Italian journalist Carlo Freccero compares Italy to countries in Eastern Europe. "We have more things in common with Poland than with Spain. How can social disaffection be articulated by Salvini?," he asks referring to the leader of the Northern League, which has historically shown no pity for the underprivileged, particularly in the poorer South of Italy.

Yet, in 2011, while in Madrid the Indignados movement was starting to put down roots that would later blossom into Podemos, Italy was undergoing a different phenomenon. Though deep disappointment with traditional parties was spreading, it was not funneled into a new rebellious but well-organized party. They were absorbed and elaborated, in different ways, by Matteo Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the comic-turned-populist blogger who founded the 5 Stelle movement.

Ugo Mattei, an Italian law professor, says the Podemos model is based on a popular leadership focused on issues that affect people's lives. Ana Colau, Podeomos-backed winner of Barcelona mayoral vote, built her political campaign on the battle against housing evictions. "She is now supported by a vast and modern intelligentsia," explains Mattei. "In Italy, after 2011, the question remained in the hands of a self-referential nomenclature. "

The 5-Star movement reached 25% consensus in earlier elections, but votes were frozen at that ceiling. "On the one hand, Renzi has stolen key issues from his enemies, such as the fight against corruption," explains Paolo Becchi, philosopher and 5-Star sympathizer. "On the other hand, Grillo isolated himself, avoiding any blending with other social movements."

Finally, Syriza benefits from the vital political leadership of 40-year-old Tsipras and Podemos from Pablo Iglesias, 36. In Italy, the mantle of charismatic young leader who challenged the establishment falls squarely on the shoulders of the sitting Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, six months younger than Tsipras.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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