Explainer | Italy’s headlong rush to elections and Salvini’s roadmap to ‘full powers’

Matteo Salvini has broken ranks with fellow populists from the Five Star Movement, and has called for a no-confidence vote against the same government he already calls the shots in. What is the real prize he is eyeing? JAMES DEBONO explains

Unfaithful partner: Matteo Salvini (right) has accused Luigi di Maio’s (left) MS5 of holding up reforms he wants to push forward, and is now planning to force Italy into another election so that he can take control of the government
Unfaithful partner: Matteo Salvini (right) has accused Luigi di Maio’s (left) MS5 of holding up reforms he wants to push forward, and is now planning to force Italy into another election so that he can take control of the government

Why does Salvini want elections as soon as possible?
Salvini’s party is already in government with the populist M5S. Despite calling the shots as deputy PM and home affairs minister, his party gained 73 seats in the lower chamber of parliament compared to the 133 seats gained by the M5S.

The two populist parties have diverging views on economic, infrastructural and social issues. The latest crisis was in fact triggered by the opposition of M5S to the TAV, a high-speed train link aimed at facilitating the transport of merchandise across the Val di Susa valley, which the Lega and the entire political establishment supports. In the past year the Lega had to accept a watered-down national basic income scheme in return for implementing its flat-tax proposal. But European elections held last May altered the balance in the coalition, after the Lega emerged as the strongest party in the country with 34% of the vote, double the amount gained by M5S.

Polls now put Salvini’s Lega at 38%. In a general election, this may give Salvini enough seats to govern alone, giving him a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win full power before presenting a budget in November, which could sour this romance with the Italians. By calling the shots on migration and pushing a hawkish line which has further polarised the nation, Salvini has decimated his populist allies whose concerns on other themes like governance have been eclipsed by what Salvini has turned into a life or death issue.

Beach bum: Matteo Salvini has been visiting Italian beaches this summer to make nice with the people
Beach bum: Matteo Salvini has been visiting Italian beaches this summer to make nice with the people

Why is Salvini keen on contesting alone?

Salvini has two options: either contest alone, or as the undisputed leader of a ‘centre right’ coalition with the national conservatives of Fratelli d’Italia and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. The Lega had contested the last election as part of this coalition but broke ranks to form a government with M5S. Yet the centre-right coalition was re-proposed in a number of regional elections held in the past year. Salvini is still keeping his options open but has hinted that he may try winning alone and if necessary, team up with other parties after the election.

Fully knowing that his adversaries’ only chance of stopping him is to gang up together against him in an unruly coalition formed after the election, Salvini would present the forthcoming election as a choice between the stability of one-party government and the risk of a coalition of confusion. “I’m asking Italians if they want to give me full powers to do what we have promised to do, to the end, without delays,” Salvini told supporters in the seaside town of Pescara, a choice of phraseology reminiscent of a speech made by Benito Mussolini in 1922. But will Italians who have not had a single party as government since the fall of fascism fall for the bait?

Italians have so far been wary of single-party dominance with the PD’s Matteo Renzi, who after winning 40% in European elections in 2014, suffered a humiliating defeat in a constitutional referendum which many saw as an attempt to consolidate his power. Will they be more willing to hand over “full powers” to a more authoritarian and divisive figure like Salvini?

  Election 2018 MEP 2019 Latest Polls
Lega 17.4% 34.3% 37.5%
5 Stars 32.7% 17% 17%
PD 18.8% 22.7% 22.6%
Fratelli d'Italia 4.4% 6.4% 6.9%
Forza Italia 14% 8.8% 6.2%
6.2%More Europe 2.6% 3.1% 2.2%
Greens 0.6% 2.3% 2%
Left 3.4% 1.8% 2%

Salvini wants to join force with right-wing bedfellows Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi and Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni
Salvini wants to join force with right-wing bedfellows Forza Italia, led by Silvio Berlusconi and Fratelli d’Italia, led by Giorgia Meloni

How close is Salvini to winning alone?

Italy has a hybrid electoral system known as the Rosatellum, through which 61% of seats are elected through ‘proportional representation’ and 37% are elected through ‘first past the post’. This makes the outcome of elections hard to predict as the first past the post seats can be won through a relative majority. Still Italian experts contend that a party may win a majority of seats with around 40% of the vote.

While in northern Italy and central Italy, the Lega can win most of these seats even if it stands alone, in southern Italy it may need the support of Fratelli d’Italia and Forza Italia to defeat M5S. Perhaps with this in mind Salvini has proposed fielding a single list led by himself which also includes candidates from Forza Italia. But Berlusconi has shot down the idea fearing complete assimilation in Salvini’s party.

If Salvini fails to get a majority on his own, with whom will he form a government?

Salvini may well have come to consider Forza Italia, the Italian representative in the European People’s Party, as a liability or an irrelevance. Once the dominant partner in centre-right governments led by Silvio Berlusconi, which included both the Lega and the national conservatives, Forza Italia now polls at less than 6% even if it has 60 seats in the current parliament. Salvini may be suspicious of Forza Italia’s international affiliation with the European People’s Party, fearing that this may condition the next government’s foreign policy. If Salvini comes short of a majority he may still count on forming a ‘sovereigntist’ government with Fratelli d’Italia, a conservative anti-migration party led by Giorgia Meloni, which is rooted in the post-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano. In this case Italy may well end up with the most right-wing government in its history since the Second World War.

Matteo Renzi and Nicola Zingaretti: the centre-lift risks splitting once again
Matteo Renzi and Nicola Zingaretti: the centre-lift risks splitting once again

Is an election inevitable?

No. Whenever a government loses its majority, the Italian constitution gives full powers to the President to appoint a new Prime Minister who can seek a new majority in parliament. Technically an alternative majority composed of the Democratic Party and M5S already exists in parliament. But the bad blood running between the two parties makes such a prospect difficult.

Still, there has been talk of a short-term government entrusted with the next budget composed of the three parties which in the European Parliament had supported Ursula Von Der Leyden’s candidacy for President of the European Commission, namely the Democrats, Forza Italia and M5S. The PD and M5S have already thwarted an attempt by the Lega to force a no confidence vote in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Thursday, thus postponing the vote by a few days. In an attempt to buy more time the M5S is also insisting on constitutional reforms to reduce the number of MPs before the next election.

The prospect of a new government may be attractive to MPs who fear losing their seat if an election is held any time soon. This prospect has been excluded by PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, who fears that forming such a government would end up strengthening the Lega, giving it an opportunity to lash against an anti-democratic government which lacks the legitimacy of the polls.

Renzi disagrees and may found his own party (modelled on Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche) and carry with him enough MPs to prod the new government. Ironically Renzi, who back in 2018 had vetoed any suggestion of dialogue between the Democrats and M5S, may find himself governing with his chief detractors.

Who can stop Salvini?

While an alternative government is possible in the current parliament, a heterogeneous alliance composed of the Democrats, Forza Italia and M5S is hardly plausible in an election. If they remain united till the election, the Democrats in alliance with other centre-left parties may re-emerge as the main opposition to the Lega, possibly recovering votes from M5S.

The Democrats are likely to field Poalo Gentiloni, a respected former premier, as their lead candidate, banking on support from middle-of-the-road voters. Yet both Forza Italia and the Democrats may split before the election and leave the middle-ground even more fragmented. The eclipse of M5S, whose populist agenda included some themes dear to the radical left – like basic income and opposition to large infrastructural projects – may also open new spaces to the left of the democrats. In this scenario Salvini is likely to ‘divide and rule’.

Would Salvini take Italy out of the EU?

If Salvini wins alone without even needing more moderate allies, Italy would find itself governed by an ally of Marine Le Pen and a friend of Vladimir Putin. Yet with the vast majority of Italians opposed to withdrawal from the euro, let alone from the European Union, Salvini is unlikely to push that button, preferring periodic fights with the Commission, which may serve as a convenient punching bag on which to shift the blame for Italy’s economic problems.

What is more likely to follow is an extension of the Visegrad group of nations to the Mediterranean, something which would weaken the European Union from within. This will strengthen calls to stop migration at Europe’s borders rather than seeking a pact for responsibility sharing on a European level.

In this way countries like Malta will continue to rely on voluntary and ad hoc agreements on migration between willing nations.

This would leave Malta more isolated in its bid to convince its European allies to share responsibility for migrants rescued in the Mediterranean.

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