Can Europe Make It?

Walking on a thin line

The game of Italian politics has never been so dangerous and high-stakes. Party leaders are willing to play.

Michele Barbero
4 October 2019, 9.40am
Giulio Andreotti talks with two cardinals, June, 2005.
Vandeville Eric/PA. All rights reserved.

“Power wears out those who don't have it,” late Christian-Democratic leader Giulio Andreotti used to say. He knew what he was talking about. A three-time Italian Prime Minister between the early seventies and the early nineties, he was arguably the most influential figure in Italian politics for two decades. Times have changed, though: alongside much of the western world, the country has now entered the age of populism. The coming months will prove whether Andreotti's old adage still applies to the new era.

Salvini. A failed gamble?

After the leader of the far-right League Matteo Salvini pulled the plug on an uneasy alliance with the 5 Star Movement in August, his former government partners forged a new (as uneasy) one with the left-wing Democratic Party (PD).

Many commentators believe Salvini shot himself in the foot. He was hoping to bring about fresh elections, the reasoning goes, which according to opinion polls his party was poised to win big. Last year, the League came in third, with a little over half of the votes won by 5 Star. This time around, it seemed the party would have easily confirmed the success of May's European election, obtaining the largest number of seats in the Italian parliament by far. No longer a junior partner in government then, but a mainstream political force in a position to lead a “natural” coalition of right-wing parties – perhaps even to rule on its own.

If this was really the way Salvini hoped things would pan out, then for him the recent developments are indeed a big blow. Under the guidance of President Sergio Mattarella, for now 5 Star and the Democratic Party have dodged the bullet of a potentially catastrophic snap election. The League is out of power, and Salvini has been ousted from the crucial role of Interior Minister – which for months allowed him to present himself as Italy's strongman, engaged in a never-ending crusade to stem the flow of migrants trying to reach the country's shores.

The new coalition appears to have largely seized the agenda and changed the narrative: in recent weeks Italy has softened its stance towards NGO ships asking to disembark the migrants rescued in the Mediterranean, and has cut a temporary deal with other EU members for the relocation of the asylum seekers picked up at sea – an agreement that the government has touted as “historic”, stressing that the adoption of a less adversarial attitude towards Europe than Salvini's is already bearing fruit.

Being out of government also takes a toll on your visibility. For Salvini, no more photo opportunities surrounded by security forces, with the Interior Minister proudly sporting a police or carabinieri uniform. Despite a savvy use of traditional and social media and a popularity that according to polls remains sky-high, the populist leader is no longer able to dominate the airwaves as he did in past months.

Matteo Renzi's comeback

However, it is probably too soon to label Salvini as clumsy and politically suicidal. The game is not over, and his mid-summer move may still pay off. The new, fragile ruling coalition, whose two main members have despised and insulted each other for years, has been put under further strain by another sudden, tectonic shift in Italy's political landscape.

As it turned out, Salvini was not the only one in a mood for political gambling. Mid-September, barely two weeks after the new cabinet had been sworn in, prominent PD member Matteo Renzi announced he was leaving the party to found his own, Italia Viva (Italy Alive). Although Renzi said he (and the roughly 40 MPs and Senators who joined him) would keep supporting the government, the split marks a watershed moment in the history of the Italian centre-left.

Renzi, a charismatic and influential politician whose stint as Prime Minister came to an abrupt end after he lost a constitutional referendum in December 2016, has long been accused by the left of being too centrist, pro-business and socially conservative, and of steering the party away from its social-democratic roots. His reluctance to clearly label himself as left-wing has become somewhat legendary, just like his flair for hot-air rhetoric. In the newspaper interview in which he announced the split, for example, he said he believed “there is room for something new. Something that is neither centrist nor left-wing, but that focuses on what Italian politics has overlooked the most: the future.”

In what was both a tactical masterpiece and a show of brazen opportunism, Renzi first used his considerable clout to convince a reluctant PD to forge an alliance with the old foe, the 5 Star Movement, thus avoiding a potentially disastrous election and buying himself some extra time to get organised; then, after taking part with his faction in the distribution of the cabinet positions, he announced the divorce from the party. His plan clearly entails filling a void at the centre of the political spectrum, appealing to the many moderate voters who feel represented neither by Salvini's far right nor by the PD's social-democratic wing (let alone by the various post-communist movements further left).

Fragile coalition, uncertain future

Renzi's move is bad news for the stability of the unnatural majority currently at the helm of the country. Although none of its members have any reason to call it quits and demand a new poll in the short term, all of them, especially Italia Viva, have strong incentives to stress their differences. There will be no shortage of opportunities. The coming weeks will be tricky, with bitter negotiations over the 2020 budget in a context of scarce resources, almost unavoidable spending cuts and policy disagreements likely to come to a head. Big egos such as Renzi and 5 Star leader Luigi Di Maio will inevitably collide, political bickering will constantly risk spiralling out of control. The majority will be hanging by a thread.

Given what lies ahead, finding yourself as little more than a spectator doesn't seem such a bad outcome after all.

Which brings us back to Salvini and his mid-summer “faux pas”. Given what lies ahead, finding yourself as little more than a spectator doesn't seem such a bad outcome after all. Indeed, some analysts believe the far-right leader's goal was never to take part in new elections right away, but rather to carve himself a comfortable spot on the sidelines for a few months, leaving to others the dirty business of governing for a little while. Salvini may have decided that it was in his best interest to switch to the opposition, trusting that any majority put together by President Mattarella to deal with the budget and other urgent matters wouldn't last long.

To be sure, one should be careful not to portray Salvini as a brilliant Machiavelli, always one step ahead of his rivals. His decision to pull the plug was not necessarily the result of a well-thought, long term strategy. This was rather a gifted politician following his gut, after convincing himself that he had a lot to gain and little to lose no matter what: immediate elections would have burdened him with the responsibility of governing in difficult times, but from a position of renewed strength; the formation of a new cabinet without the League would probably have meant the delay of polls by just a few months, creating the perfect conditions for a big win by the League in the spring.

From Salvini's standpoint, though, the best-case scenario would have been a caretaker government made of technicians and designed only to lead the country through this delicate phase, with an expiry date shortly after the upcoming winter. Instead, the country's new government is fully “political”: the result of a fairly wide-ranging programme agreement between 5 Star and the Dems, with prominent party members in the key posts.

It is quite possible that Salvini underestimated the chances of this outcome and that he did not adequately prepare for it, as suggested by his partial u-turn a few days after he announced his withdrawal from the majority: in an incoherent speech in the Senate on 20 August, first he accused the 5 Star of hindering Italy's economic development, then he offered to put the government back on track for a little longer.

Raising the stakes

However, the latest political developments don't necessarily mark the failure of the League's gamble; they just raise the stakes for all players involved. If the shaky new alliance holds for more than a few months, if 5 Star, the Democratic Party and Renzi's new political creature succeed in convincing the country that they have a vision that goes beyond clinging to the top jobs for the sake of it, Salvini's credibility as government material may take a serious hit. He would certainly remain an important, popular figure, but the right-wing cultural revolution that he has represented over the past few months could lose much of its steam.

Government at this particular time brings with it great danger.

On the other hand, being in government at this particular time brings with it great danger. If the coalition falls apart quickly after achieving little beyond spending cuts amid a bleak economic outlook, the centre-left and 5 Star risk being erased from the political scene in the next election.

As some of Italy's most prominent party leaders appear more willing than ever to engage in high-stakes tactics, Andreotti's old saying remains to be tested. In the next few months or years, either power will wear out those who don't have it, or it will annihilate those who do.

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