Italy’s nationalist Lega party blunders into opposition

After last-gasp negotiations, Giuseppe Conte will lead a new coalition as PM, sidelining Matteo Salvini’s right-wing League

ROME, ITALY- AUGUST 27: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte leaves from Chigi palace during the consultations days for the formation of the new government, on August 27, 2019 in Rome, Italy
(Image credit: 2019 Antonio Masiello)

Italy’s populist Five Star Movement announced on Wednesday that it had formed a coalition government with the centre-left Democratic party, sidelining the thriving far-right nationalist League, and reinstalling Giuseppe Conte as prime minister.

The news is a bitter blow to Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which brought down the government last week by exiting its coalition with Five Star, instigating a political crisis in the hope of forcing a general election.

The League won 34% of the national vote in May’s European elections, and in some polls earlier this month was sustaining support of 39% - high numbers for a political system accustomed to coalitions formed of numerous, smaller parties. A general election could have carried the populists into power, and handed Salvini, who served as deputy prime minister and minister of the interior for the previous government, a powerful mandate to manifest his nationalist, Eurosceptic, anti-immigrant, protectionist agenda.

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At the time Prime Minister Conte was clear with his diagnosis - Salvini was “looking for a pretext to return to the polls,” he said.

The plan backfired. Instead, Salvini now faces a potential four years in opposition.

“Today we told the president that there is a political agreement with the Democratic Party,” said Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement, yesterday evening.

When he brought down the government, Salvini gambled that, as adversaries, Five Star and Democrats would fail to reach a compromise, but after tense last-ditch negotiations on Wednesday - the deadline for any coalition agreement before a general election would automatically be called - the gambit failed.

The new coalition

Both Five Star and the Democtratic party had too much to lose by going to the polls. In particular, “elections posed an enormous threat to Five Star, whose support among voters has been cut in half during its 14 months in government with the League”, reports The New York Times. “With their power and well-paid government jobs at risk - and their feelings hurt by Mr. Salvini’s betrayal - Five Star leaders instead opened talks with the Democratic Party, which only days earlier they had suggested was the party of Mafiosi, corrupt elites and kidnappers.”

Attempts to form a government had been “hampered because of clashes over who would lead the coalition and who would hold ministry positions”, The Guardian reports. “Talks between the PD and M5S only progressed after Nicola Zingaretti, the PD leader, succumbed to demands from his M5S counterpart, Luigi Di Maio, to reinstate Conte.”

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Salvini’s about-face

As it became clear that the two parties might forge an agreement, Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio claims that Salvini came to him hoping to restore their government, even offering Di Maio the prime ministership.

“I refused,” Di Maio said. “I’m interested in what is best for the country, not what is best for me. I don’t deny the work done over the past 14 months, and the recognition of Conte by [Donald] Trump is a sign that we are on the right path.”

The Democrat's Nicola Zingaretti said yesterday: “We consider it worthwhile to try this experience. In difficult times like these, shunning our responsibility to have the courage to try this is something we cannot afford.”

The blossoming fortunes of Giuseppe Conte

Until very recently, Conte was viewed at home and abroad as little more than a proxy for the political battle between fractious coalition partners Salvini and Di Maio. After being plucked from relative obscurity, the prime ministership was his first role in politics.

However, despite the fact he has never even taken part in an election, his reinstatement is the latest evidence of his political coming-of-age. Last week, his speech redressing Salvini for his sudden resignation from government cemented his place at the centre of the political drama. According to the Financial Times, his low profile amid the bluster of his two waring deputies has provided the cover for his political personality and career to flourish.

“Mr Conte has unexpectedly emerged as a charismatic leader in his own right, becoming one of the knots in tense negotiations to form a new government and avoid snap elections in the run-up to a difficult autumn budget,” reflects the FT.

The paper goes on to quote Emiliana de Blasio, professor of political innovation at Rome’s University of Luiss, who said of Conte that “in six months he has gone from Pinocchio to the reference point for Italian politics at both national and European level... Thanks to him, Italy is less isolated and closer to Europe.”

What will happen next?

Salvini’s brinkmanship has damaged his popularity, with Italians seemingly blaming him for the crisis. “The level of trust the Italian people have toward Salvini has gone down from 51 percent to 36 percent over the past month, while for Conte it has only dropped from 56 percent to 52 percent,” according to a report from Ipsos.

Nevertheless, Salvini knows he is not out of the game. “A government made up of Five Star and the Democrats will not correspond to the sentiment of the people,” the outgoing deputy prime minister said. “If you make deals that are against nature, in the end the people will kick you out. Sooner or later, the judgement of the people will be heard.”

Jason Horowitz at The New York Times says: “The new coalition, another marriage of convenience between sworn political enemies, may prove no more stable, or less conflict-ridden, than the one it replaces.”

Salvini’s “departure this week means that others will be left to grapple with Italy’s intractable stagnation,” points out Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in The Daily Telegraph. “It is they who will have to push through €23bn of austerity cuts to comply with the EU’s stability pact and the fiscal compact, the paraphernalia of arcane budget rules concocted by lawyers and unworkable in a serious downturn. Mr Salvini’s hands will be clean.”

As a result, while yesterday’s news represents a miscalculation and a setback, Salvini’s Lega are far from spent as a political force.

“Comparisons with Germany from 1930-1932 should be made with caution. The Lega is not ideologically Fascist, and circumstances are different,” continues Evans-Pritchard. “But it should not be forgotten as a matter of political science that the Nazi party was able to snatch the whole institutional system only after Germany’s political centre had immolated itself... The Italian and EU elites may regret allowing Matteo Salvini to sit out the coming slump with the irreproachable alibi of opposition.”

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