[ANALYSIS] Has Matteo Salvini been outsmarted?

On 8 August Salvini triggered a political crisis in the middle of the summer lull by calling for fresh elections but now he risks being sent back to the opposition benches. Has the Italian far-right lost the bird in hand while craving the two in the bush?

Matteo Salvini has gambled but whether he has won will only become clear in the months ahead
Matteo Salvini has gambled but whether he has won will only become clear in the months ahead

Boosted by the results of MEP elections and riding high on the polls which put him close to winning power alone without even the need of allies, Matteo Salvini pushed his own government to the brink by calling for fresh elections.

This was a big gamble for Salvini. For while governing in coalition with the M5S tied his hands, he was still able to call the shots especially on the issue most dear to his heart; immigration.

Now he risks losing power without being able to get what he initially wanted; an autumn election which would have freed his hands from the inconvenience of having to compromise with allies who have more seats in parliament than him. Instead he may end up in opposition.

The end result is that Salvini’s political astuteness is now being questioned. The success of his mid summer announcement depended on paralyzing the M5S. Instead, faced with an existential threat the Movement has used what could be its ultimate advantage; its flexibility to build alliances across the board.

Salvini seems to have downplayed the possibility of an alternative government composed of the Democratic Party and the Cinque Stelle who together command an even larger majority than the current government.

Salvini may well have banked that the bad blood between the Democrats and his former populist allies would have prevented them from ganging up against him.

Yet, by pushing for an election to exploit the weakness of his former allies, he may well have pushed M5S leader Luigi Di Maio into the embrace of the centre left, with the latter making the calculation that the choice is between kissing the proverbial frog or handing over the country to the most right wing government in post-war Italian history.

Former prime minister Matteo Renzi could make a comeback of sorts
Former prime minister Matteo Renzi could make a comeback of sorts

Ironically, the most enthusiastic for an agreement was former premier Matteo Renzi who had sabotaged any agreement with the populists on all previous occasions. Moreover, the break with Salvini may well have re-compacted the M5S whose left wing minority led by Roberto Fico, the president of the lower chamber, were increasingly uncomfortable with the pact with the extreme right.

Salvini’s abrupt move has also surprised his former allies in the centre-right, with Berlusconi turning down a proposal for a single right wing list headed by Salvini himself. Salvini still needs Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia to win in the south even if he is closer to right wing leaders like Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen than to the European People’s Party in which Forza Italia is anchored.

So far, the Italians have voted for Salvini knowing that he would not be governing alone and would be tamed by his allies. A poll published on 12 August showed Salvini’s party at 32% down from 38% on the eve of the political crisis he unleashed. Salvini may well have over played his hand.

Salvini’s new card

Salvini does not want to be blamed for the crisis and gives the impression of backtracking, not excluding a re-edition of his alliance with the M5S. That was why instead of withdrawing his ministers from the government he waited for Giuseppe Conte to present his resignation yesterday.

Yet, in a strong speech yesterday Conte squarely blamed Salvini for the crisis, attacking Salvini’s lack of political culture, his use of religious symbols to make propaganda and for putting his personal interests before those of the country. In this way Conte has passed the buck to the Italian President who will now explore whether a new government can be formed.

Salvini who just a few days ago had unceremoniously dumped his allies in a bid for elections which would have given him “full powers” is now invoking public wrath against the possibility of a new government which excludes him, describing this as a betrayal of the electorate’s will.

Salvini knows that the formation of a government which includes the democrats who were voted out in the 2017 election may not go down well with voters who voted for change. Yet, the Lega leader is forgetting that he had contested the 2017 general elections as part of the centre-right coalition with Berlusconi, which he had abandoned to join the M5S in government.  

By seeking an agreement with the centre-left, the M5S would simply be substituting the Lega with the Democrats as their junior coalition partner. The government will still be led by the party which won a relative majority in 2017.

Leader of the M5S Luigi di Maio could explore a coalition government with the centre-left Partito Democratico
Leader of the M5S Luigi di Maio could explore a coalition government with the centre-left Partito Democratico

Constitutionally, the president of the republic is bound to seek an alternative majority before taking the country to the polls. The only snag in this argument is that recent European elections have confirmed the Lega as Italy’s strongest party at 34%, up from 17% in 2017. The M5S fell from 33% in 2017 to 17% now.

This reinforces his argument that such a government would be a “coalition of losers”. In this way Salvini can play his last card; either an election now or face the risk of an even stronger Lega if the polls are delayed.

This means that to take away the wind from Salvini’s sail, any alternative government has to last and deliver on improved living standards, and thus be in a position to change the mood of the electorate. That is why Beppe Grillo, the founder of the M5S is insisting on a pact which lasts for entire legislature.

This would be difficult considering the historical rivalry between the PD and the M5S. It is also difficult to reconcile Renzi’s pro-business agenda with the M5S’s opposition to big infrastructural projects and support for basic income schemes.

Yet, the alliance may be more palatable to the M5S’s electorate which includes a large segment of voters who used to vote for the Italian Communist Party.  

Possible scenarios for a new government

1. A short lived technical government till elections take place earlier next year

This would see the appointment of an institutional caretaker government which would present the next budget, possibly embark on constitutional tweaks like the reduction of the number of MPs and take Italy to the next election sometime next year.  

Such a government may count on support of the Democrats, the 5 Star Movement and possibly Forza Italia, the three parties which at a European level had supported the candidacy of Ursula Von der Leyen. The major worry would be that back in opposition Salvini may ride on the crest of populist anger at an unelected government, which would lack a cohesive economic and political programme. 

2. A durable 5 Star-Centre Left pact

This would see a new experiment in politics which would depend on the new prime minister finding common ground between the M5S, the centre-left and other left wing parties.  

Such a coalition would count on a strong majority of 362 out of 630 MPs in the lower chamber, which is even more comfortable than that enjoyed by the present coalition (351).  

But while the maths looks good, reconciling the agendas of the different components of the alliance may be problematic.

The advantage would be that of avoiding elections in the immediate future which would most likely catapult Salvini to power, giving both parties enough time to implement social policies which makes them more popular with the electorate.

3. A Conte bis supported by the Democrats

Another solution touted by M5S would see the Democrats supporting a minority government led by Giuseppe Conte formed exclusively by the M5S.  

In such a scenario it would be more difficult for Salvini to depict the new government as a back room deal to secure the return of the Democrats to power after they were trounced in elections in 2017.

But this raises the question; what would the PD gain from such an arrangement?

Joseph Muscat and Giuseppe Conte
Joseph Muscat and Giuseppe Conte

The implication of a new government for Malta

On migration, the return of the centre-left in government is likely to drive a wedge between Italy and the Visegrad group of nations who oppose any EU agreement aimed at the relocation of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean between all member states.  

Although with the M5S at the helm it is hard to imagine a return to the ‘agreement’ which saw Italy taking all migrants rescued in the vicinity of Malta. Italy will push harder for an agreement between European countries to share responsibility for migrants.  

While Salvini was more interested in stopping entry to migrants by criminalising rescue missions, the M5S is more inclined to favour the relocation of migrants even if it shares some of Salvini’s misgivings on rescue missions.

Migration will probably still result in tensions in any new government, especially between those who openly defend NGO rescue missions and regard Libya as a human rights black hole, and those who shun NGOs and favour cooperation with the Libyan coast guard.