'It was supposed to be a sort of coup by Salvini,' but a new political majority in Italy is emerging instead
New coalition leaves far-right League party's Matteo Salvini out in the cold
With the crumbling of Italy's coalition government and the scramble to form yet another, this latest crisis to grip Italy could be seen as just one more confusing chapter in a country where chaos has been the one political constant.
At the height of the mid-August holidays, after barely a year in power, the populist ruling coalition of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the far-right League party came undone at the hands of League leader Matteo Salvini.
Salvini was in the midst of a "beach tour." As he licked gelato, posed for shirtless selfies and ranted against migrants, his party shot high in the polls, far above the Five-Star, which just months earlier had been Italy's most popular party.
Eyeing his moment, Salvini pulled out of the coalition last month and went for broke by seeking a no-confidence vote that he hoped would trigger a fall election.
"It was supposed to be a sort of coup by Salvini, who was aiming to exploit his political support of almost 40 per cent for a snap election," said political expert Lorenzo Castellani. "But we are a parliamentary republic, and it's possible that a new political majority might emerge instead."
That is exactly what happened.
For all his political acumen, say observers, Salvini seemed to forget that after the last election more than a year ago, the Five-Star had tried to hook up first with the leftist Democratic Party to form a coalition. It was only after the Democrats rejected the Five-Star's advances that the populist movement turned to the League for their marriage of convenience. The Five-Star, which had risen to prominence with large public rallies called F-off Days aimed at politicians perceived as corrupt, were proving to be far more like the class of people they once so boisterously flipped the middle finger at — namely politicians.
As this latest government crisis inches forward, the Five-Star proposal last week to form a coalition with the Democrats seems so far to be sticking, with outgoing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte tasked with forming this second alliance.
The largely unknown law professor was widely mocked as a "Mr. Nobody" when he was chosen as the compromise prime minister in his first coalition government. Now, Conte is basking in praise in both the Italian and international press for his "charisma," "gravitas" and "steel" after his departing Senate smackdown of Salvini following a year of silence.
As Italy says goodbye to a government born of protest, the country is now ushering in one that ties together the protesters with the very people they protested against.
But Cristina Fosane, a professor of political science at Rome's Luiss University, said the new pairing is less antithetical than it seems.
"The way these parties are internally managed is completely different," Fosane said. "Key points in the political process of the Five-Star are driven by the Rousseau platform, the populist's online voting system. It's a party that rather than leading and giving political direction, is given political direction by the base."
But, Fosane said, much of that political direction is closely in line with that of the Democratic Party: the focus on combatting poverty and social exclusion, the protection of the environment, ways of combining economic growth with fiscal stability and a growing pro-EU stance on the part of the Five-Stars.
As shared issues emerge, major symbolic divisions — the fate of Europe's largest steel plant and the construction of a controversial high-speed rail between Italy and France — have, if not disappeared, at least deflated. That is mostly thanks to the Five-Star setting aside populist rhetoric in favour of economic pragmatism.
Even the composition of the Five-Star, once a near evenly distributed melange of left-wing, right-wing and previous non-voters, has tilted more to the left as it's lost support. Over the past months, the party has bled the support of right-wingers.
Salvini support slipping
And after a year of Salvini, who in the role of interior minister dominated Italy's political scene, both the Five-Stars and the Democrats understand more than ever before just exactly what the alternative to their uncomfortable alliance looks like: far-right tirades and harsh 'security decrees' curbing migrants' rights softened by Facebook posts of Salvini with kittens and his favourite chocolate breakfast spread.
Even the former Democratic prime minister Matteo Renzi, who last year went on Italian television to proclaim his party would never strike an accord with a movement that accused the Democrats of being "mafiosi, corrupt, friends of bankers and oil barons" has changed his mind.
But Italy, with its string of failed governments, frenemy pacts and ever-swelling debt, has been a political anomaly as well as a harbinger. Twenty-five years ago when Silvio Berlusconi, a cruise-ship-crooner-turned-TV-tycoon, swept to power on the soccer-chant "Forza Italia!" (Go Italy!) — the world laughed. Now, the world has Donald Trump.
Last year, Italy became the first major European democracy to elect a far-right populist government.
Now, support for Salvini is slipping. And if the Five-Stars and the Democrats are able to put their animosities aside, the country could become the first to stave off this wave before it crests.
But most observers doubt this will happen, even if the next government manages to tackle what previous governments have put off: Italy's outsized debt, high unemployment and anemic growth.
"This government needs to act quickly to pass a new budget [to cut spending and avoid new taxes]," Fasone said. "But even if they do, it could only feed more into the far-right, anti-austerity rhetoric."
Salvini may now be shouting from the wings instead of centre stage, but he's also keenly watching for his next moment, which could be his biggest yet.