Number 65, your time is up

It lasted fourteen months in the end. Which is probably longer than anyone expected Italy’s most recent government – its 65th – to last.  This coalition between the anti-establishment, populist Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) and the far-right, populist La Lega (aka the secessionist Northern League) was at best no more than a marriage of convenience right from the start, and in August, following weeks of bickering and in-fighting, Matteo Salvini, the leader of La Lega and hard-line Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior filed for divorce. Suddenly it was not just the UK that was in the midst of a political crisis.

The coalition formed in June 2018 was the result of eighty-eight days of horse-trading and arm-twisting following the inconclusive general election in March – the longest ever period the country has had to wait for a government to be formed. The Five Star Movement (aka M5S) won the largest number of seats both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, and nearly twice as many as La Lega, who came second and who also led the largest parliamentary coalition. However, in Italy’s strictly proportional system that is deliberately designed to prevent any one party or individual party to hold too much power, this was not sufficient for either party to govern on its own. And while both predictably ruled out an alliance with any of the traditional, mainstream parties, there was little common ground in terms of policy between them. Indeed, all they agreed on, it seemed, was their opposition to The Establishment and their rejection of the old Left/Right politics. Nonetheless, M5S’s manifesto, with its emphasis on inter alia the environment, a citizen’s income and direct democracy was seen as broadly left-leaning, while La Lega, with its nationalistic, anti-immigration and low tax stance was distinctly right-wing in flavour. Hence the three months of paralysis while a mutually agreeable policy programme and distribution of roles was slowly and painfully thrashed out and the two parties eventually got themselves balanced on a tiny island of common ground that consisted largely of tax and pension reform, stricter controls on illegal immigration and resistance to the EU in respect of border and budgetary controls.

Although M5S was technically the senior partner in the coalition with M5S nominee Giuseppe Conte as Prime Minister, it was quickly undermined by its own its lack of practical political experience: in line with M5S’s anti-establishment credentials, most of its ministers came into parliament – and now into government – from outside politics. Conte himself, for instance, was (and apparently still is) a professor of private law at the University of Florence. The politically astute and media savvy firebrand Matteo Salvini quickly exploited this inexperience and soon muscled in to become the de facto leader of the government, prioritising La Lega’s hard-line agenda at the expense of M5S’s more liberal policy ambitions. A raft of draconian anti-foreigner ‘security’ laws was quickly passed, resulting in a rapid and highly visible clamp down on asylum-seekers, an increase in repatriation centres, and, most controversially, the closure of Italian ports to NGO boats carrying refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. As a personal aside, we consequently find it rather ironic that it is Salvini’s signature on the official documents that grant us residency here.

But I digress. While these policies caused much acrimony and argument within the coalition, they have actually been well received within the country, especially in the south, where nearly all migrants arrive, but which, with its already high unemployment rates and more limited infrastructure, is ill-equipped to deal with all the new arrivals. And, significantly, where La Lega had historically enjoyed little support thanks to its traditionally northern focus. This no doubt helped La Lega’s relentless rise in the polls: by summer its popularity had doubled since the 2018 election, while M5S’s popularity had practically halved – hence Salvini’s increasing dominance of the fractious and faltering alliance, and M5S’s increasing resistance to it. So he finally walked away from the coalition in the hope if not the expectation that this would force the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to call for new elections that would allow Salvini to capitalise on his popularity and go on to form a government, either on his own or in coalition with other parties of the right including Fratelli d’Italia, and even Berlusconi’s (yes, he’s still around) centre-right Forza Italia.

Salvini ended up shooting himself in the foot, though, for rather than acceding to his ever more strident demands for an election, the cautious and pragmatic Mattarella preferred to give party leaders the opportunity to see if a new coalition could be formed first – as in fact required by the constitution. Salvini was banking on M5S refusing to enter into coalition with the next largest party in parliament, the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico – PD) because this was the very party resistance to which had provided M5S with its raison d’être. But he massively under-estimated M5S’s determination to avoid an election at practically any cost given their miserable position in the polls, as well as their resulting willingness to form a coalition with their hitherto bitterest foes, who were naturally also keen to grasp the opportunity both to enter government and simultaneously neutralise La Lega. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, as they say.

Indeed, neutralising La Lega could well have provided the foundation for the M5S-PD alliance that was formed in little more than a fortnight after several rounds of ‘swapsies’ along the lines of ‘We’ll only give you Finance if you give us Agriculture and Transport’ as ministerial positions were handed out. A few days later, M5S’s members gave the deal their overwhelming support, Conte was re-appointed Prime Minister, and Salvini was banished to the opposition benches. He had been completely outflanked: in addition to under-estimating the strength of M5S’s desire to hold on to power he had also badly under-estimated just how quickly these political ingénues had grasped the dark arts of politics – ironically, as a direct result of having to try and work with Salvini, it seems to me.

But. And it is a big ‘but’. In light of their previous enmity, coupled with the numerous challenges the country faces, many commentators doubt government number 66 will last long. And, of course, Salvini is not going to go quietly. Indeed, he is already whipping up fierce opposition to the fledgling coalition among his supporters, and although his ratings have been dented over summer, La Lega still tops every opinion poll: “It won’t last long,” he tweeted recently. “Opposition in parliament, in town halls and in the squares, then finally we will vote and win.” So while some feel that the prospect of elections against the backdrop of La Lega’s continued popularity in the polls will be sufficient to keep the coalition together, many others are merely waiting for Act II of this latest political drama to play out. And some can already spy the fat lady warming up in the wings…


The headline in the photograph roughly translates as “Faith in the government? For now, just about”.

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