Europa United contributor Luca Contrino is taking a concerned view on the recent appointment of Matteo Salvini as Minister for the Interior and is giving notice to Europe that he may be here for longer than we all can expect.
The coalition negotiations produced the most expected outcome, and now Salvini’s Lega and Di Maio’s Movimento 5 Stelle will attempt to govern in coalition, with the at least nominally independent Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. This coalition, despite their shared anti-Europeanism and demagogic rhetoric, is inherently fractious and could unravel on several points. However, the situation favours Salvini, who will look for the slightest excuse to sabotage this government and return to elections. The current polling sees his party dominate the Italian right, and he could soon have the chance to take the prime minister’s role without making uncomfortable concessions. There are several reasons to be worried of such a development.
He wants the top spot
Firstly, that Salvini is desperate to secure the premiership has been obvious for some time. He explicitly campaigned under the banner “Salvini Premier” and despite the Berlusconi lingering shadow, was the most prominent face of the joint centre-right campaign in the last election. But the most obvious sign of Salvini’s urgency in his push to reach the top came from his insistence on Paolo Savona as economics minister, which led to Mattarella blocking the appointment and the short-lived crisis that risked sending Italy to an early election. This was Salvini’s explicit intention. He has no desire to share power with a party who ostensibly have policy objectives so divergent from his own, and at present the situation is playing entirely to his favour. Since the election, his Lega party has gained in the polls, and is now just a couple of percentage points behind the Movimento 5 Stelle. Additionally, the impasse on the new government’s formation only gave way once Berlusconi gave Salvini the go-ahead to negotiate with Di Maio, therefore despite the public disagreements between the two on certain positions hide a continuing entente that would probably translate to resuming the long-running electoral alliance between the two. Salvini needs this alliance to persist because several centre-right coalitions control various regional and other governments, which could easily change if he diverges too far from the agreed line or gets too comfortable with Di Maio and co., though this latter scenario is highly improbable. Because of this, returning to elections now would have served Salvini perfectly, reactivating the centre-right alliance and extending his party’s base both within parliament and within the centre-right itself.
How can one be sure that Salvini has the upper hand? The simple answer to this question is: look how everyone else is doing. The Partito Democratic were decimated at the last election, and look set to stay in opposition for the near future due to infighting and a lack of clear positions on which to provide coherent opposition to the coalition without appearing to oppose the coalition for the sake of opposing them. Forza Italia are more or less reduced to those who will stand by Berlusconi no matter what, and can no longer claim to be a moderating force on Salvini’s League, as they will most likely cling to him and the League in elections at all levels of governance. They now depend on him for ongoing electoral results.
Movimento 5 Stelle is losing momentum
However, despite their place in government, it is the Movimento 5 Stelle which stands to lose the most. In the municipal election held earlier in the month, they lost two votes in Rome – the Municipalities III and VIII, as well as Ivrea, as per Corriere Della Sera. Although these took place on a lower that average turnout, it also demonstrates that the party cannot get out the vote and generate the same enthusiasm it did in previous elections, not least those on March 4th. It might be down to their administrative incompetence finally coming to bite them. After all, if voters like the idea of a shake-up at the national level, they’re not so inclined to leave local services to experimentation, and while one can lodge legitimate complaints about established parties like the Partito Democratico, their local-level track record offers proof of some competence (although cases like Rome have also stained the party). However, the determining issue is the party’s total slavish subordination to Matteo Salvini and the League in parliament that is most concerning. So far it has been Salvini taking the lead on policies, and no one has sought to keep him in check in any way. On migration, foreign relations, the economy and other issues, Salvini has made all the noise, with Luigi Di Maio, and perhaps more worryingly, the prime minister Antonio Conte saying next to nothing. Obviously now that they are governing in coalition, it would be risky for the Movimento 5 Stelle to diverge too much from Salvini’s position, especially as many of them might be aware of his attempts to scupper this government and sweep them away at the next election in order to govern single-handedly. However, the fact that they seemingly have nothing to say suggests that they cannot even be bothered to take the initiative regarding their political positions and this will bring them down. Firstly, because they took a large number of votes from the left, many of whom abhor Salvini’s positions and are horrified to see M5S capitulate in the manner they have despite being the larger party in parliament.
Secondly, and perhaps paradoxically, they also took a large number of right-wing votes, and with Salvini emerging on the far-right end of the spectrum, they could easily be persuaded to back him and drop Di Maio and co. Speaking of which, Di Maio himself appears to be heading towards trouble. His spinelessness and moving away from the rebellious nature of the M5S’ origins towards a servile acquiescence to Salvini is fuelling speculation that Alessandro Di Battista, the other high-profile M5S leader and past contender for the party’s prime ministerial candidate, will attempt to regain a leadership position within the party (he is currently travelling).
All of this comes together to hand Salvini a practically unassailable advantage. As abhorrent as many of his positions are, they have support among a large section of the Italian public, and where the other parties are characterised by division or subordination to Salvini, the League has remained compact and cohesive. This opens the door for a fundamentally anti-European and illiberal politician, who has not hesitated to be Putin’s mouthpiece in Italy over the last five years and threaten people who challenge him – one only has to see his threats to remove Roberto Saviano’s police escort, which he requires due to threats from the Camorra, a branch of Italian organised crime, to position himself as the only leader in Italy today.
Italians must decide if this is the man they want, and M5S voters, who wanted honesty and accountability as well as greater sovereignty for Italy, can decide if Salvini, an unscrupulous and dishonest coward who in reality is happy to be a bootlicker to people like Trump and Putin, is the leader they envisaged to change Italy for the better. All this while hiding millions of Euros in Swiss bank accounts as per the rimoborsopoli scandal, which concerning party finances in Italy as well. If there’s a time to fight and find a coherent opposition to the demagogue currently calling the shots, it’s now. Salvini, like Trump, is continuing to shift the Overton Window to the right with his comments and proposals, and will continue pushing, because he knows the base he is catering to, and the extremists he is happy to take under his wing to guarantee votes. That means pushing back and forcing Salvini and the M5S to answer for their hypocrisies, it means formulating strong, principled opposition, and the presentation of clear feasible alternatives that address Italians’ concerns in an honest manner.
It will sometimes mean making people uncomfortable, but this isn’t meant to be pleasant. The consequences of not doing so will be dire.
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