[ANALYSIS] Crisis Italy: an election or an experiment?

President Sergio Mattarella has given the centre-left Democrats and the M5S until Tuesday to come up with a deal. Will they succeed or will Salvini have his way?

Kick Salvini out: can the centre-left’s Nicola Zingaretti (left) and the M5S minister Luigi di Maio forge a deal to keep Italy’s government on the straight and narrow?
Kick Salvini out: can the centre-left’s Nicola Zingaretti (left) and the M5S minister Luigi di Maio forge a deal to keep Italy’s government on the straight and narrow?

The stakes are high for both Italy’s centre-left Democrats and the populist Five Star Movement (M5S). If they fail in reaching a deal to form a new Italian government, the way will be paved for an election which would probably see the firebrand Matteo Salvini of the Lega becoming Europe’s first far-right Prime Minister since the end of the Second World War. But they also know that any deal between the two parties is nothing short of an experiment in political alchemy, dictated by parliamentary arithmetic.

Probably when triggering the crisis to bring about elections he could win on his own, Salvini – now craving “full powers” to forge ahead without his government partners M5S – assumed that bad blood running deep in both parties would keep the M5S and the Democrats apart.

His other assumption could be that even if these two parties reach a deal, the experiment will explode in the face of its participants, leaving them even more vulnerable to his electoral inroads in an election which may be postponed by a few months, but which still looms on the horizon.

Yet after Tuesday, during which PM Giuseppe Conte resigned, Salvini seems to be having second thoughts, sending an olive branch to his former allies in M5S, as the prospect of an alternative government leaving him out in the cold, became more likely. Now Salvini says that he would do anything to keep the democrats from power including getting back with the M5S.

Necessity… the mother of invention?

Reaching a deal between the M5S and the PD is bound to be an uphill struggle. It would mean that for the first time in its history the M5S would be governing with an established party to which it was overtly antagonistic, especially during the last legislature, marked by its hostility towards the figure of Matteo Renzi, the PD’s former leader and former Italian prime minister.

Yet in this case necessity could be the mother of invention. Both the M5S and the Democrats know that an election now would favour Salvini, who is seeking “full powers”, with Italy risking becoming the first European country to be governed by a party whose international reference points are French far-rightist Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Matteo Salvini hopes failure will push Italy to elections to return him as prime minister ‘with full powers’
Matteo Salvini hopes failure will push Italy to elections to return him as prime minister ‘with full powers’

Moreover, together they can even put an end to Salvini’s dream of winning power alone, by changing the electoral law into a purely proportional system, something which would make it impossible for any single party to win power.

Yet the prospect of this alliance risks imploding. While some in the M5S, especially those whose reference point is the president of the lower chamber Roberto Fico, cringe at the criminalisation of migrant rescue NGOs, the M5S has indeed voted alongside Salvini for measures to close down ports and jail NGOs. This may be why a rapprochement between the M5S and the Lega cannot be excluded. Both share a common culture based on invective and the championing of ‘common folk’ against perceived political establishments, a term which often extends to journalists, NGOs and career politicians.

But in the case of the Lega, this term is often not extended to business elites and influential southern politicians, which have put their patronage networks at its disposal.

There are also deep cultural differences between the Lega and the M5S. They have diametrically opposed views on taxation, welfare, civil liberties and infrastructural projects. Beppe Grillo himself shared his initial battles against corporate crime and against the privatisation of water with green and left-wing activists.

But in his resignation speech, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte expressed deep unease with Salvini’s political culture, attacking him for obsessively using religious symbols for political propaganda and for his latent authoritarianism. This may suggest that the M5S, which is close to Conte, is moving away from Salvini’s brand of populism, even if it was not entirely alien to it.

A lurch to the left?

The question remains: can a common ground be reached between the M5S and the Democrats?

The left wing in the PD may cosy up to some of the M5S ideas, particularly citizenship income and the reversal of labour market reforms devised by their own party in government. But more centrist elements close to former premier Matteo Renzi are lukewarm.

Former premier and Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi claims the chemistry between the PD and M5S could lead to Italy’s most left-wing government ever. The reality is more complex than Berlusconi’s simplistic distaste for the left, as both parties are ridden with deep contradictions in a context where the Italian left is weaker than ever.

In fact, the Lega’s advantage is that it has created a hegemony on the centre-right, coming across to the electorate as more united and clearer in its intentions. Salvini turned a northern separatist party with right-wing inclinations into a wet dream for the socially conservative, those who want a regressive flat tax, those who detest immigrants, and who see European regulations as an inconvenience.

So while the M5S’s Luigi Di Maio and the PD’s Nicola Zingaretti have formally backed negotiations between their respective parties, it remains to be seen how enthusiastic they are for a deal committing the two parties into a long-term legislative pact. Zingaretti has made it clear that the alternative to a durable reformist government are elections. Probably at this juncture it is the M5S that has more to lose if the country goes to the polls – it could lose its dominance while the PD, warts and all, would emerge as a stronger Opposition.

But do they really want a deal?

Zingaretti has also imposed a number of conditions which reportedly include the withdrawal of Salvini’s decrees on immigration, as well as linking the reduction of parliamentarians to a wider electoral reform.

Di Maio has also imposed conditions, which include a clear commitment on a reduction in the number of MPs. This raises the question: are the two leaders raising the stakes too high for a deal to succeed?

The two leaders know the only way to take the wind out of Salvini’s sail is to govern well together, and improve the living standards and prospects of the Italian people. Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella seems to have endorsed this line of thinking, giving both parties five days to come up with a deal for a new majority.

If this fails the M5S may well face the bitter choice of a humiliating rapprochement with Salvini, or face an election which could see them downgraded from first to third largest party. Mattarella could also end up appointing an institutional government which would take the country to an election next year, after presenting a budget aimed at avoiding an increase in VAT, leaving Italians even more impoverished.

But this would well mean the return of Salvini to government.

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