Sardines, Senators, Spats and Salvini

All right, UK.  It’s not all about you. There is at least one other country in Europe where the business of government has also been reduced to political soap opera; an ongoing drama full of division, deception, disloyalty and discord. Take Italy, for example.

When we left the story back last autumn (Number 65, your time is up), the unlikely coalition between the Five Star Movement (aka M5S) and The League (La Lega) had collapsed. Well, Matteo Salvini, the then Interior Minister and, de facto Prime Minister and leader of The League deliberately brought it down in a tactical gamble. With his party riding high in the polls and support for M5S plummeting, he quit the coalition – which was in its death throes anyway – in the hope that the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, would call a general election. In theory, this would have allowed Salvini to storm to victory and form a ‘pure’ right-wing government, if not on his own, then in coalition with other parties of the right including the arch-nationalist Fratelli d’Italia, and the centre-right Forza Italia (where that veteran charlatan Berlusconi still pulls the strings). Only the President refused to play along with Salvini’s grand plan and instead – as the constitution actually requires – invited the two largest parties in parliament, M5S and the left-leaning Partito Democratico (PD), to try and form a new coalition. In the end, it didn’t take as much coaxing and cajoling as might have been expected of these two sworn enemies: despite or perhaps because of their woeful poll ratings, M5S were desperate to cling onto power, and the PD were just as desperate to get into government in order to oust Salvini and to halt the advance of La Lega.

But while the idea that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ might have been enough to bring them together, it was never going to be enough to keep them together in the longer term. Indeed, within weeks, cracks began to show in the fragile coalition. Right from the very start of this marriage of convenience there has been a steady exodus of MS5 deputies: some have been sacked, some have become just too disillusioned to continue, and some – bizarrely – have even defected to La Lega. Meanwhile, the anti-establishment party’s lack of political nous has led to it being effectively side-lined by the much more experienced PD who have ridden roughshod over many of M5S’s key policies. Indeed, its leader, Luigi Di Maio resigned in disgust in January and by February was even calling for people to protest against the very government he still sits in.

All of which discord and chaos has, of course, played straight into Salvini’s hands, for while he might have been out of a job, this media-savvy firebrand most certainly hasn’t been out of the limelight or the action; far from it. Buoyed by victories in half a dozen regional elections in 2018 and 2019, he and his allies went on to take Umbria in October 2019 and then Calabria in January 2020, with each victory putting the precarious coalition under ever greater pressure.  The election on 20th January in Emilia-Romagna, a stronghold of the left since World War II, was the big one, though. If Salvini and his right-wing cohorts won here, so commentators opined, then it really would be game over for the left-leaning coalition.

The campaign was bitterly-fought and saw the emergence of the ‘6000 Sardines against Salvini’, a flash mob (of 15,000 protesters in the end) that crammed itself into Bologna’s historical Piazza Maggiore in peaceful protest against Salvini’s political rhetoric and the right-wing surge it had unleashed across the country. The movement soon spread, with Sardine protests taking place throughout winter in Milan, Florence, Turin, Naples, Palermo and Rome where, according to the organisers, 100,000 protesters took part in the rally. After smaller rallies in Paris, Berlin and Brussels the movement returned to Bologna at the climax of the campaign with 40,000 people attending a huge rally and six-hour long concert in Piazza VIII Agosto featuring some of Italy’s top artists from the fields of pop, rock, punk, rap and folk as well as film and theatre. Exactly a week later, the centre-left PD candidate won an absolute majority in the polls, beating the Lega candidate by almost eight clear percentage points. And the coalition government in Rome heaved a sigh of relief that could have been felt from the Alps to Etna.

Victory in Emilia-Romagna has only partially steadied the coalition’s leaky ship, mind. In the last week, former premier and coalition partner Matteo Renzi has threatened to resign from the government over controversial judicial reforms, prompting Prime Minister Conte to reassure the President that he would still be able to command majority support within parliament even if Renzi’s small party withdrew support. Despite Conte’s reassurances, however, there is little confidence that the coalition could in fact maintain its parliamentary majority under such circumstances, so Renzi is under massive pressure not to resign and effectively clear the way for the right to gain power.

And of course, with the right currently holding thirteen of the country’s twenty regions as well as the two autonomous provinces in the far north, Salvini continues to rock the boat with as much vigour as ever. Even the Senate’s decision to remove his immunity from criminal prosecution for the alleged kidnapping of 131 migrants whom he prevented from disembarking on Italian shores in August 2018 doesn’t seem to have dented his confidence – or his popularity – at all. Indeed, many fear that the decision may play straight into Salvini’s hands and turn him into some kind of populist martyr, thereby boosting his poll numbers even further.  After all, seven more regions – including currently left-leaning Le Marche – go to the polls this year, so some might say he still has everything to play for.


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