(CN) – For the past 14 months, European leaders have vilified Italy as a dangerous pariah in Europe, a country with a rogue far-right government unfit to handle a debt-ridden and weak economy threatening European Union’s fiscal stability.
All that is changing.
On Thursday, Italy is set to swear in a new coalition government that sees Italy’s Democratic Party, a mainstream center-left and solidly pro-European party, replace the far-right and anti-European League party in the halls of Rome’s ministries.
The Democratic Party is coming back into power after it was invited to form a government by the anti-establishment and maverick 5-Star Movement, a direct-democracy party that holds the most seats in Parliament.
“Now we have perhaps a government with Europe, not a government against Europe,” said Paolo Modugno, a lecturer in international affairs at the Paris Institute of Political Sciences on France 24 television.
On Wednesday, this new coalition government was given the nod by Italian President Sergio Mattarella. A new Cabinet was set to be sworn in Thursday. Giuseppe Conte, a former law professor who acted as a neutral mediator between the League and the 5-Stars, will remain prime minister. He is now expected to act as the neutral go-between for this new coalition.
This alliance came about after a coalition between the 5-Stars and the League broke down in August.
The breakup was the work of League leader Matteo Salvini, a tough-talking and charismatic far-right politician who won the hearts of Italians with his non-stop campaigning at rallies, on social media and on television. His anti-immigrant policies as interior minister also buoyed him in the polls.
Calculating that the 5-Star Movement would be unwilling to form an alliance with the Democrats, their long-time rivals, Salvini called for new elections. But his move backfired. The 5-Stars did the unexpected and turned to the Democrats, even though the move may infuriate many of its supporters.
“Salvini was brought down by his political arrogance,” said Gianfranco Pasquino, a political sciences professor at the University of Bologna, in an interview on Italian radio.
Prior to his fall, Salvini was in full campaign mode and toured Italy’s sun-soaked beaches in his swim trunks, with a crucifix dangling around his neck in defiance of critics who’d blasted him for seeking to appear ultra-religious for political advantage.
For days, Italian media showed him wading with beachgoers and grinning for selfie photos with admirers, all the while blasting European policies, left-wing politicians and anyone standing in his way. He promised to make Italy stronger and richer by cutting taxes and spending more. His anti-austerity plans were on a collision course with the EU and its rules to keep Italy from running up public debt.
In one interview with reporters, Salvini even said he wanted new elections so Italians could give him “full powers,” a phrase fraught with meaning in Italy because dictator Benito Mussolini used the same language.
“He thought he could control everything in Italy,” Pasquino said. He said Salvini’s utterance that he wanted “full powers” may have been a slip of the tongue, but it was nevertheless a bad mistake.
“No one is given full powers in a democracy, and no one asks for them,” he said.
Salvini’s call for elections at the height of summer and on the brink of budget negotiations with the EU were not just miscalculations but also signs of political naivete, political analysts said.
For now, then, Salvini is out of government, and he could potentially be left on the sidelines until 2023 when Italy is mandated to hold new elections. Of course, it’s also possible that this new coalition government will fall apart before that. Italy has had 67 governments since 1946.
For now, then, another unlikely alliance is forming in Italy – a partnership that gives new meaning to the expression that politics makes strange bedfellows.
For years, the 5-Star Movement railed against the Democrats as a party of elites prone to corruption and do-nothing government. Italy was led by Democratic governments between 2013 and 2018, years marked by high unemployment, stagnant growth and corruption. For their part, the Democrats said the 5-Stars were riddled with members spouting conspiracy theories and proposing unworkable solutions.
But this partnership may not be as far apart as it might first appear and it may provide Italy with much-needed stability, analysts said.
“It will certainly do less damage” than the League and 5-Star Movement government, Pasquino said. He added that the Democrats and 5-Stars share similar ideas.
“They may even get some economic and social work done that may help this wretched country get ahead a bit,” he said.
In outlining their priorities, the coalition said it would focus on social justice, seek to introduce a minimum salary, avoid an increase in value-added taxes and do more to help the impoverished regions in southern Italy.
Importantly, the new coalition also laid out a vision on how to tackle immigration. For years, Italy has struggled to deal with the arrival of tens of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who cross the Mediterranean Sea on boats.
Salvini blocked ships from bringing refugees and asylum seekers to Italy and took other measures to push immigrants living in Italy without proper documents out of the country. His actions infuriated many European leaders but won the backing of many Italians.
The new government pledges to both help refugees and immigrants but also stop the flow of people from Africa. The 5-Star Movement’s leader, Luigi Di Maio, will become Italy’s new foreign minister and in this role Di Maio pledged to work on solutions to stop immigration but also to bolster Africa’s economies.
Francesco Saraceno, an Italian economist, said on France 24 television that he expects the Democratic Party to seek to push the 5-Star Movement to the left.
“It [the 5-Star Movement] was not a party based on a set of shared values among its members,” he said. “It was a party that came out of a protest movement that has everything inside it: It has everything from far right to [those in support of the] environment to people disappointed by the left. So it has many shapes and many souls.”
He continued: “This is why, I think, when it was in an alliance with Salvini it became colonized by Salvini and basically the agenda was set by Salvini. This is why Salvini made a big mistake in ending this government. He was already the master even if he was not formally in charge.”
Saraceno said he expects the Democratic Party to imitate Salvini and try to shape the agenda even though the 5-Stars are the bigger coalition partner.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)