(CN) – In a twist of political fortunes, Matteo Salvini, the far-right leader who’s become Italy’s most popular politician since taking office 14 months ago, faces the possibility of seeing his bid to seize power backfire.
On Aug. 8, Salvini pulled the plug on governing with the anti-establishment left-leaning 5-Star Movement and called for new elections.
Italy’s government collapsed Tuesday when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned, sharply criticizing Salvini, saying he cared only about his “personal interests.” Salvini has ambitions to become prime minister and form an even more extreme right-wing government.
But on Thursday, those ambitions appeared to be slipping away from Salvini. There are solid signs that the 5-Star Movement is willing to salvage its own political fortunes by forming a new government with its former arch-nemesis, the establishment center-left Democratic Party.
The two parties agreed to meet on Friday to discuss forming a new parliamentary majority capable of governing. Together with independents, they could have enough votes in Italy’s two parliamentary chambers to pass legislation.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella said Thursday he would meet political leaders next Tuesday, Aug. 27, and decide whether to give a mandate to form a new government or call for new elections. Mattarella also held a first round of consultations with political leaders on Thursday.
Still, the differences between the two left-leaning parties are great as are the animosities. The 5-Star Movement has castigated the Democrats as a corrupt establishment party of privileged elites, out of touch with voters and responsible for so many of Italy’s political, social and economic problems.
The Democratic Party tries to paint the 5-Star Movement as novice politicians with unworkable and wild ideas.
“The deep history of mutual antagonism means that there is some resistance from the ranks of both [parties] against a possible alliance,” said Wolfango Piccoli, an analyst with the London-based political risk firm Teneo Intelligence, in a briefing paper.
Piccoli said the 5-Stars would be “a complicated and unreliable unnatural partner” for the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party has a long history of being at the helm in Italy and it was, until its support collapsed in 2018, Italy’s biggest left-leaning party.
Whoever may be running Italy’s government faces tough budgetary decisions in coming months – decisions that Salvini might be trying to avoid having to take the blame for.
Italy needs to pass a budget that meets the European Union’s tough spending limits, or face a steep rise in value-added taxes.
Either way, the next Italian budget is unlikely to please Italians. Italy’s economy, the fourth-largest in the EU, is crippled by debt, unemployment and low growth.
An Italy run by the 5-Stars and Democrats might be just as contentious as the one that just collapsed, and just as unable to deal with Italy’s economic woes, Piccoli said: “Consequently, it would not be in the position to address the country’s profound economic challenges.”
Financial markets and European policymakers might mile upon such a new alliance.
A government run by Salvini, by comparison, might challenge the EU’s tough spending limits. Salvini may even be tempted to pull Italy away from using the euro — despite the centuries-long, miserable record of the Italian lira against other currencies.
“A government run by the PD [Partito Democratico] and the 5-Stars is far from an ideal solution and will be deeply uncomfortable for both parties,” Silvia Merler, the head of research at Algebris Policy and Research Forum, wrote in Politico. “But the tie-up would stave off the threat of fiscal irresponsibility of a Euroskeptic far-right majority.”
For now then, the 5-Stars and Democrats appear willing to make a U-turn and work together to stave off Salvini’s power grab.
“We won’t let the ship sink, or Italians will pay,” Luigi Di Maio said Thursday after his party met with Mattarella. He laid out a list of priorities that analysts said appeared to open the door to collaboration with the Democrats.
Political survival for both of the left-leaning parties is at stake. In the past year, the 5-Stars and Democrats have been unable to stop Salvini’s anti-immigrant and pro-business League party from growing in popularity. In recent opinion polls, the League has won about 38% of support, the most of any party. By comparison, the popularity of the 5-Stars has plummeted to as low as 17% while the Democrats have recovered, winning about 22%.
Now, though, it looks like Salvini could end up in the opposition – and out of government. He is presently Italy’s interior minister and deputy prime minister.
In his role as interior minister, Salvini has closed Italy’s borders to immigrants and refugees and toughened laws against immigrants living in Italy. His tough-on-immigrant policies and sympathy for far-right ideas have divided Italy and made him a despised figure in European circles.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)