Why Italy is heading for crisis once more

As the country's prime minister resigns, Italy may face an early election that could put hard-right Lega leader Matteo Salvini in power.

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Since his appointment as Italian prime minister in June 2018, congenial law professor-turned-politician Giuseppe Conte has been less a powerbroker than a figurehead in the government dominated by the Lega’s Matteo Salvini. Yet Salvini’s bid at the start of August for what he called “full powers” – removing the independent Conte and breaking the Lega’s coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5s) – has thrown the republic into crisis once more.

Over the last 14 months Salvini has skilfully used his position as interior minister to monopolise the media agenda, far exceeding his brief with a series of well-orchestrated clashes with pro-refugee NGOs, the EU and trade unions. Having won over a third of the vote in May’s European Parliament elections, on 8 August Salvini announced he would be withdrawing his party’s support for Conte and seeking fresh elections.

Salvini’s boisterous recent rallies in beach resorts across southern-central Italy were a good sign that election plans had been put in motion. In regional contests since the general election in March 2018, the Lega has extended its support beyond its traditional northern heartlands, and despite a scandal in July over alleged funding from Moscow, the party now polls close to 40 per cent nationally.

An early general election would be a boon for Salvini and the Lega; a parliamentary majority (one perhaps allied with the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia) would both allow him to become prime minister and give his party the dominant say in the election of the president in 2022. Having won just 4 per cent of the vote in the 2013 elections, the Lega now threatens to gain a stranglehold over all of Italy’s political institutions.

On Tuesday, Conte resigned, but recent manoeuvrings in the Italian parliament might thwart Salvini’s push for a vote this year. While Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia backed Salvini’s call for a vote of confidence in Conte, the Democratic Party (PD) sided with M5s to delay the date of the vote, buying time to negotiate a possible alternative government. Together, these parties are a potential parliamentary bulwark to the Lega, which holds only one in six seats in the legislature. 

The potential outcome of all this cross-party dealing and scheming is a “president’s government” – a cabinet of technocrats designed to push through the budget cuts that President Sergio Mattarella is demanding. But there is also the possibility of a wider realignment, and a formal M5s-PD coalition that governs until the end of this parliamentary session in spring 2022.

The surprise force behind the idea of an M5s-PD alliance is former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who is also leader of the PD’s liberal-centrist wing. After the general election in March 2018, Renzi rejected any pact with M5s, claiming he preferred to “sit back with the popcorn” and watch the M5s-Lega coalition fail; now he is seeking out a partnership with his former foes. Since he was ousted as premier in December 2016, Renzi has become the éminence grise of the PD, and has even toyed with the idea of establishing his own centrist vehicle akin to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! On 12 August rumours spread that he was about to launch a party called Azione Civile, which would support a new anti-Lega coalition with M5s.

Salvini has predictably exploited the awkwardness and perceived unpopularity of a “Renzi-M5s pact”, mocking his former allies by wishing them “good luck” in government with the PD. Having been forced to swallow the Lega’s political agenda for months, the M5s polling position has steadily eroded from 32 per cent in March 2018 to around 17 to 18 per cent today, which is why the party has little choice but to consider such an unusual alliance with the long-despised Renzi and the PD.

On 10 August, the comedian and M5s co-founder Beppe Grillo, in a widely-shared blog post entitled “The Consistency of the Coackroach”, insisted that while his party should avoid becoming part of the establishment, in the first instance it should “stop the barbarians” in the form of Salvini and the Lega.

A pact between M5s and the PD carries all manner of dangers for Italy. Should a deal between them prove impossible, the country faces early elections and a likely huge mandate for Salvini. This would finalise the Lega’s capture of the conservative middle classes, while reducing Berlusconi’s old party, Forza Italia, to a mere rump entity after its quarter-century domination of the right. Victory would also propel the Lega’s march into the once hostile southern regions.

An outright Lega victory does not promise a huge policy shift – Salvini’s party has abandoned talk of leaving the eurozone, and has continued with its anti-migrant measures. But a Lega-only government would almost certainly reverse the welfare policies advanced by M5s, as well as introduce plans for a 15 per cent flat rate tax: lowering the tax burden for the wealthy while imposing as much as €60bn in spending cuts.

The chance to thwart Salvini may prove irresistible for his opponents, however. Since the elections in March 2018, both the M5s and the PD have been unable to land a jab on the seemingly untouchable Lega leader. The formation of a stopgap administration, or even an alternative majority in parliament, may merely delay his victory and ascendency to the position of prime minister.