Edit: Elvira Krithari
“The political situation in Italy is severe but it is not serious,” Ennio Flaiano, a writer and Italian humorist said many years ago. These are fitting words to describe what happened during the last month: The government changed without elections, a Prime Minister switched from a right-wing cabinet to a leftist one and an e-vote of less than 80,000 individuals decided the future of over 60 million people. A new and surprising alliance is now up to lead the country.
Turnaround from the beach
The political crisis broke out in mid-summer, on the 8th of August. Many Italians were on holiday when Matteo Salvini, the Minister of the Interior, vice-PM and leader of right-party Lega, made a sudden statement. “Let’s go to Parliament and acknowledge that there is no longer a government majority. […] We should let voters decide again.”
It was a bolt from the blue for public opinion. Salvini announced a vote of no confidence − this means that Lega’s Parliament Members were ready to vote against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. “When a vote of no confidence indicates that in the Parliament there are more opponents than supporters, the President of the Republic is required to remove the PM from office,” explains Arianna Angeli, Researcher of Comparative Public Law at University of Milan.
But why should a Minister of the Interior and vice-premier bring down its own Government? Salvini was complaining consistently about the cabinet’s actions in the weeks before the breakup. Since June 2018, Italy had been ruled by a so-called “Yellow-Green Government” after the colors of its political parties. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was the head of a strange alliance between the Five Stars Movement, an anti-system group aspiring to direct democracy, and Lega, a right-wing party which focuses its rhetoric on migration and security issues. The Movement won the 2018 political election with more than 32% of the vote, not enough to rule on their own. Lega was the third party (17%) and accepted in forming a coalition which carried on with ups and downs for more than a year.
Nonetheless, the two parties showed significant discrepancies about social, economic and environmental issues and several times came very close to the breaking point. The last bone of contention was a controversial high-speed railway (TAV) planned between France and Italy. Five Stars Movement considered this large infrastructure a waste of public money, whereas for Lega it was the ultimate certification of irreconcilable differences and a good reason to pull the plug.
Matteo Salvini said the administration was “stuck” by its allies. But he was probably just waiting for the right moment to terminate the Government and lead a new one: Lega was gaining in the latest polls and won 34.3% of the vote in the 2019 European Elections (Five Stars Movement won 17%). This reversal of power caused Salvini to call elections, as Prime Minister Conte said after meeting him: “Lega wants a new vote to capitalize on its popularity.”
At the beginning of August, Salvini had planned an “Italian Summer” − a campaign trail to several seaside towns and beaches, interpreted by many analysts as a clear indication of his will to vote as soon as possible. After a speech on the 8th of August, he announced his intention to run for Prime Minister and asked Italians for “full powers” − a sinister sentence which is reminiscent of fascist rhetoric. The following day, Lega presented an official request for a “vote of no confidence” to the Italian Senate.
The Lega leader was riding the wave: he took for granted that all the other parties, including the left, wanted elections, as they had been extremely critical of the “Yellow-Green Government.” But a bitter surprise was waiting for him on the 20th of August, a field day for Italian politics. Conte gave an impassioned speech in the Senate, attacking Salvini’s reckless behavior and accusing him of “pursuing personal interests” without any respect for the institutions. The Italian Prime Minister also criticized Salvini’s use of online social networks, his authoritarian rhetoric and his public display of religious symbols to curry favor with Catholic voters.
After that, Conte announced his formal resignation, avoiding the vote of no confidence. “The Government was over, but the PM could still be entrusted to form a new one with a different majority,” says Angeli. And a really unexpected ‘coup de théâtre’ turned the tables: the Democratic Party (Italian center-left, part of the European S&D) opened the door to an agreement with Five Stars Movement. This move was pushed by the former Italian PM Matteo Renzi, although PD and the Movement had been arch enemies in recent years.
A difficult and race-against-the-clock negotiation between the two parties gave shape to a new cabinet, sidelining Lega and the other right-wing parties. After difficult talks and compromises, a new government program in 26 points was drawn up and on the 3rd of September the Five Stars Movement sought the approval of its supporters. The 117,194 members of the Movement (far fewer than its voters at the last elections) could vote “Yes” or “No” to the new cabinet led by the same PM. This e-vote, held on an online system called “Rousseau”, was crucial for the birth of the Government: the “Yes” option passed with 79.3% of the vote. On the following day Giuseppe Conte had a new chance.
The anger of the right
Salvini’s risky move backfired: he wanted to lead the country but in the end, he remained out of power due to a miscalculation. He tried until the last minute to repair the old alliance and now he is inflaming his supporters, defining the new one a “Government of losers.” Indeed, Lega has fewer Parliament Members than PD and the new cabinet has a stronger majority than the old one. Salvini is probably the most popular politician in Italy right now, but he can not make it count without elections. PD and Five Stars Movement know it and preferred not to go to the polls.
Forced to surrender to the rules of a parliamentarian democracy, Lega’s leader said that the new administration (called “Conte-bis”) was boosted by the European Commission to keep Italy subordinate: “A project from far away to sell off the country”. He accused Members of the Parliament of being “attached to the seat,” pushed for a fresh elections and planned a massive protest in Rome for the 19th of October. The right-wing party Fratelli d’Italia backed his claims, while Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian PM and leader of Forza Italia said that Salvini delivered the country to the left.
A new, unpredictable beginning
“Right and left are over. We are a post-ideological movement,” said political head of Five Stars Movement Luigi Di Maio to justify a sudden change of alliance. He did not deny the work of the “Yellow-Green Government” and ensured that the Movement “will not renege on commitments made with Italian people.”
The figure of PM Giuseppe Conte seems to have gained popularity during this crisis and the new Government will probably be more pro-EU and less vicious towards migrants. The alliance between PD and Five Stars Movement is more appreciated by the European leaders than the previous one and also US President Donald Trump tweeted an unexpected endorsement of Conte. But there is something paradoxical in this political breakthrough. For the first time in the history of the Italian Republic, a Prime Minister runs two Governments based on a different majority in the same parliamentary term: he could now repeal laws that he has endorsed some months ago.
Political stability however is not guaranteed: PD and Five Stars Movement still have strong differences and both could stop the game when it suits them. “There are so many unpredictable elements, but it’s worth the risk if this cabinet remains in office throughout this parliamentary term,” state internal sources of PD National Board. Italy has its Government, at least until the next political crisis.