Forming a government, Italian-style

For the last two months, Italy has remained in a limbo with an interim government that will not continue but no alternative. For the first time ever, Italians could be called to vote in summer – perhaps not the best idea given the country’s weather.

The story of how this has happened is a curious one that works in several steps:

Step 1: Populists win in the polls

Let’s start by the beginning – as one should. On March 7th, the Italians spoke and the results were a shock. While the populist Five Stars Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle, M5S) and the far-right Lega Nord were expected to make big gains, the extent was unexpected. They essentially smashed the axis of post-1994 Italian politics: Berlusconi on the right and ‘anti-Berlusconism’ on the centre-left. Instead, the latest iteration of Berlusconi’s cult parties and the Democratic Party (PD) were fourth and third respectively, vote-wise. And Berlusconi’s Forza Italiawas not even the largest party in his own ‘Centre’-Right coalition with the xenophobes of the Lega and the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia.

On a European note, this result was disastrous. The Eurozone’s third largest country’s two largest parties in Parliament were Eurosceptic (M5S) or outright Europhobic and Moscow-aligned (Lega). As neither party nor the ‘Centre’-Right coalition as a whole obtained a majority on their own, the question of who and how a governing coalition could be crafted become the centre point of Italian politics, once again. After much drama, the likelihood of a M5S-Lega Nord coalition is very high. A ‘Coalition of Doom’ for Brussels, so to say.

Step 2: Populist coalition talks that fail

On April 5th, Italian President, Sergio Mattarella, after meeting with party leaders, said that there was no viable majority and that the parties will need to continue talking until they managed to form a government. This was after the failure of the first round of negotiations between M5S and the Lega Nord, the government option preferred by 32% of Italians.

In a recent interview, Professor Daniele Albertazzi talks about the Lega Nord as the party of the ‘cultural losers’ of globalisation and of the M5S as the party of the ‘economic losers’ of globalisation. This is a pretty apt description of the two parties.

For the uninitiated in Italian politics, the Lega Nord is a relatively ‘old’ party that first appeared in the 1980s as a reaction against fiscal transfers from the wealthy northern Italy to the much poorer Mezzogiorno (southern Italy). From there, the party defended the independence of northern Italy under the name of Padania. Later, it embraced xenophobia and Euroscepticism. Under the new leadership of Matteo Salvini, the party has embraced the xenophobia, Euroscepticism and right-wing populism aspects of the party and shed all elements of southern Italy’s-bashing, even dropping the word ‘Nord’ from its name. And it’s been very successful.

Meanwhile, the M5S is the party of the ever-impoverished southern Italy. The anti-political, yet ideologically vague platform of the M5S could easily considered just the latest explosion of Southern Italy’s anger at a political class it finds inept, distant and corrupt. It would simply follow in the steps of the late 19th century’s briganti or the post-WWII qualunquismo movement.

Of course an ideologically vague platform is a danger. After all, in a cabinet containing an ideologically vague yet dominant M5S and a more coherent and ideological, but smaller Lega, would the M5S really call the shots? Personally, I doubt it. As the party has a social base that extends both left and right (but above all young and southern), too much ideological definition could rob it of its transversal appeal.

At first, it seemed like things were going well in step 2: Both parties managed to agree on electing their preferred candidates for Presidents of the Chamber of Deputies and of the Senate, usually a very good barometer of the likelihood of a new governmental majority. Indeed, on March 24th, Roberto Fico (M5S) was elected President of the Chamber while Maria Elisabetta Casellati (FI) was elected as President of the Senate thanks to the combined support all the forces of the ‘Centre’-Right coalition plus the M5S.

From there, the story seems to have gone downhill though. There has been increasing friction not just within the ‘Centre’-Right coalition as to whether to proceed with a pact or not (after all, the M5S is not open to dealing with Berlusconi) but also personally between Salvini and the M5S’ leader, Luigi di Maio. Salvini has demanded that Di Maio stops dealing with the PD and ‘gets serious’ about negotiating with them.

Step 3: M5S flirts with both the establishment and the far-right

From the get-go, Berlusconi has made it very, very clear that he would much rather govern with the centre-left than with the M5S. And by very clear I mean, he has pretty much insulted the M5S by calling them a “non-democratic party” and the “party of the unemployed”, telling Italians that if they voted for them, they “voted wrong”. This option is, of course, unacceptable to Salvini and the Lega who has accused the PD of being a mafia, being corrupt and of having its hands covered in blood.

And yet, the M5S decided to try to simultaneously court Salvini and the centre-left. Neither party was very happy with knowing that they could be dropped for their arch-nemesis.

That the M5S decided to try and negotiate with the centre-left is rather odd. Originally after the election, in his sort of resignation speech, Matteo Renzi explicitly said that the PD had gotten the message – it was time to be out of power; more importantly that the PD would not form any coalition agreement, whether with the Lega or the M5S.

But things change quickly. While Renzi remains steadfast in his rejection, the same can’t be said for everyone within the party – which shouldn’t come as a surprise as the PD is a factional madhouse. And already there have been voices that suggest that there should be an attempt at a M5S-PD government. But Renzi, still has an many allies within the party that adhere to his position that any deal with the M5S is a no-starter and that the party needs to spend some time in opposition, to “get in touch with the streets”.

As all this happened – and perhaps in an effort to approach the PD, there has been a great M5S volte face on many key policy proposals – particularly a seeming reversal on the party’s previous Euroscepticism. Il Foglio reported that a few days after the March election, the M5S’ online manifesto had been taken down and replaced with a new one. This new programme contains some serious policy changes, especially foreign policy. On top of this, it is no secret that the M5S is looking with tremendous excitement at the idea of joining Macron’s new European movement – and if that involves forsaking the party’s Euroscepticism to join probably Europe’s most vocal Europhile, then so be it.

Renzi may be gone (for now anyway). His supporters are not, however. The party’s interim leader is now the deputy secretary general, Maurizio Martina, from the PD’s left. Martina is accordingly the person in charge of the thankless task of preparing (or not) the primaries for the congress as well as of the other thankless task of negotiating with the parties, even if it’s only to reject any negotiation attempts.

Partly because of the pressure from the President of the Republic, partly because of the discredit of Renzi after March’s awful results, partly to stop a far-right government and partly because of the erotica of power, there are many elements in the Democratic Party that have become rather outspoken about the need to form a coalition with the M5S.

Two weeks ago there were clear signs that the M5S was very serious about trying to form a government, the appointment of Roberto Fico as informateur was considered a good sign, as he is from the M5S’ left. He led some talks and it seemed like things were moving quickly in the direction of a populist-left government. To some degree, the platforms of the two parties were closer in many domestic policies than those of the M5S and the Lega so it was not quite out there.

Ultimately, it was for nothing. Renzi put his foot down and the M5S was attacked from left and right for its double dating. In fact, Renzi threatened to splinter off from the PD with his loyalists, leaving any possible M5S-PD government bereft of enough seats in either chamber to govern.

Step 4: The Presidential Threat

If on April 5th, President Mattarella had already made it clear there was not enough ground for a government a month after the election, by May 7th, the President was stating clearly that, if need be, he would call elections immediately to be held in July.

After this wake-up call, it seems like the two largest parties got at it. Salvini and Di Maio’s have been meeting for the last few days in an incessant attempt at brokering a compromise that enables them to form a government together

Step 5: Step 2 with less time and less Berlusconi

The difficulties in this latest round are somewhat the same as in Step 2: Berlusconi and M5S mutual and public dislike for one another, the egos of the prime donne of this most Italian operetta (Salvini & Di Maio) and ideological differences. And so, they have all slowly managed to overcome them in record time.

M5S spokespersons have insulted Berlusconi plenty, and in return Berlusconi has compared the M5S to Hitler. It seems then obvious that there is no love lost between the parties, and therefore why it was so important to deal with this issue. Berlusconi was after all the glue that has kept the Italian right-wing together for 3 decades now, even if in 2018, Salvini outflanked him as the leader of the right. Salvini knows that, and he has made it clear many times before that he is not willing to break his ties with Berlusconi, as without a common front, and given the electoral system, the right would not fare all that well.

Therefore, after much pressure, the Lega managed to obtain Berlusconi’s support in repeating the ‘Centre’-Right coalition agreement in the next election and simultaneously not needing his votes for the government. Apparently, electoral coalitions no longer mean government coalitions. Instead, Berlusconi will abstain ‘benevolently’ when a government is presented before the two chambers soon.

With the Berlusconi issue out of the way, in their race against the ticking time bomb of Mattarella’s call for elections, both Salvini and Di Maio have met repeatedly in private conversations trying to hammer out a last minute deal. First, the face of the government – both leaders have frequently criticised non-political leaders (like Monti) leading governments, and yet both of them want to be premier, but only one can. Therefore, the two parties are trying to find a suitable ‘neutral’ candidate that is both political (but not too much as to steal their thunder) and acceptable to both of them.

The other issue if the government programme – a ‘contract’ of sorts is being drafted by both men and their technical advisors in trying to bring together the (pie in the sky) proposals of the two parties together. If one were to do their two main planks simultaneously – the M5S’s basic income and the Lega’s flat income tax at 15%, then Italy would definitely go bankrupt. So it’s bound to be tricky, but they can probably use alternative facts to support their case. The two parties do agree on some other things, like reversing the pension reforms enacted by the Renzi and Gentiloni governments.

The other issue is Europe – in which the M5S has mellowed out a lot, but it appears as if the Lega is willing to treat the euro as safe for now, and instead just focus on making the lives of migrants much harder and increasing the deficit.

Step 6: Success (?)

Not until Monday 14th at the earliest will Italians know for sure whether they will get a government, and what policies it will pursue. But most Italians do not believe trust, Italians politicians and parties that much, they are only notoriously bad at delivering on their electoral pledges as well as doing other, simpler tasks, like paying back their loans, as Bloomberg recently reported.

David is a “student” of European politics from Spain living in that frozen wasteland known as Sweden, and before that in the Netherlands. He is a politics nerd, 1980s music lover and coffee addict, but not necessarily in that order. He has his biases – but they are transparent.

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