Salvini Can Be Beaten

Far-right leader Matteo Salvini brought down the Italian government because he wanted fresh elections. A pact among the other parties could stop his advance — but only if it breaks with austerity.

Italy's deputy prime minister and leader of right-wing Lega (League) political party Matteo Salvini holds a crucifix in his hand while attending a news conference following the European Parliamentary election results at Lega's headquarter on May 27, 2019 in Milan, Italy. (Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images)

It seems Matteo Salvini isn’t so invincible after all. On August 8, he seemed to have seized the political initiative once more, as he announced that he was withdrawing support from Giuseppe Conte’s government. Since forming a pact with the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5S) in June 2018, Salvini has not only dominated the headlines but steadily risen in the polls, from 17 percent in last March’s general election to 34 percent in this May’s European contest. Exploding Conte’s M5S-Lega-backed government, Salvini sought to force the early general election that would hand him what he called “full powers.”

Yet this plan soon faced pushback. Above all, Salvini had underestimated the other parties’ determination to block such a vote. The tone was set on August 10, when the M5S founder Beppe Grillo published a blog post whose title invoked “The Consistency of the Cockroach” — the spirit of self-preservation. M5S has fallen from 32 to 17 percent in the polls over the last year, and Grillo called for the formation of a new government to “stop the barbarians,” rather than the early election that would bring electoral wipeout. In this cause, his party has found surprising allies in their long-sharpest enemy: the center-left Democrats (PD).

The prospect of a pact between these parties has blown a hole in Salvini’s call for early elections. Although his call for no-confidence motion has, indirectly, forced the resignation of prime minister Giuseppe Conte (independent leader of the M5S-Lega pact), this came only after over a week’s delay, indeed imposed thanks to a PD alliance with M5S. This has bought time for legislators to plan alternative governments, able to replace the current M5S-Lega tie-up and avoid the need for early elections. Such an arrangement would most likely draw Nicola Zingaretti’s PD and other small center-left forces into some sort of pact with Luigi Di Maio’s M5S.

Salvini certainly seems to have lost the initiative — last week, he even tried to propose renewed ties with M5S, in a reshuffled coalition. For now, this has been slapped down by Di Maio. Yet while the Lega leader looks outmaneuvered, he can at least expect fresh opportunities to come his way — perhaps even gifted by the architects of the “anti-Salvini pact” itself. While a coalition of the center-left and M5S would block the interior minister’s immediate plans for an early election, the mooted policy agenda for a new government seems anything but likely to slow his rising support.

New Alliance?

An alliance between the PD and M5S had until recently seemed highly unlikely. The PD has long been the main polemical target for the “anti-corruption” party, in particular portraying 2014–16 prime minister Matteo Renzi as the epitome of an aloof political elite. M5S has in the past proven effective in winning over disillusioned young and working-class voters from the PD. Conversely, the latter, under Renzi’s leadership, positioned itself as an “anti-populist” party, condemning Di Maio’s welfare policies as mere “handouts” and painting its 2018–19 alliance with the Lega as an inevitable consequence of its supposed Euroscepticism.

A pact also seemed difficult in terms of the internal politics of the PD. When Nicola Zingaretti was elected the party’s leader in a primary this January, this was widely perceived as a slight shift back toward social-democratic rather than liberal mores. Renzi and his media surrogates attacked Zingaretti — who governs the Lazio region with the help of M5S representatives — as soft on “populism,” as they instead prepared the ground to create a centrist, pro-European vehicle akin to Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! party. After the March 2018 election, whose results allowed several potential coalition scenarios, Renzi blocked any moves toward a pact with M5S, declaring his preference to “sit back with the popcorn” and see the M5S-Lega duo fail.

Renzi’s position, however, changed abruptly in August after Salvini launched his bid to provoke fresh elections. The PD has in recent months had some success in rebuilding its polling strength on the basis of opposition to Salvini, and Zingaretti could expect to score in the low to mid-twenties in any fresh election — a poor score by historic standards, but an increase relative to its 18 percent in the 2018 contest. More important, a fresh election could allow the new PD leader to push forward his own candidates as MPs and senators, at the expense of his factional rival’s current dominant position. While Renzi currently controls forty-five out of fifty-one PD senators, and about half its 111 MPs, Zingaretti has hardly any base of support in parliament.

Renzi’s call for a new coalition to block Salvini is largely designed to maintain this status quo, and his own parliamentary base. Yet his surprise move also showed how influential he could be in the formation of such an administration. Indeed, after initially rebuffing any such arrangement, PD leaders have gradually adopted a language of openness and possibility. When rumors swirled on August 12 that Renzi was about to break from the PD to form his own new party, Azione Civile, in order to seal a pact with M5S, this in fact pushed Zingaretti toward talks with Di Maio’s party.

Such an arrangement is in fact far from certain to play out in practice and may be easier to form if it is not fronted by the big hitters of either party. In the Senate, Salvini openly mocked the idea of a “Grillo-Renzi” pact; indeed, the more that Renzi is perceived as being behind a new coalition, the harder it will be for either M5S leaders or Zingaretti to swallow it. Yet it’s not only the optics of such a deal that make it difficult to realize in practice.

Stopping the Barbarians

Indeed, at the policy level, the bases for a PD-M5S tie-up remain precarious. One of the reasons why president Sergio Mattarella will likely seek the formation of a new government rather than call early elections is his insistence on the need for a manovra, in essence a budget cut designed to keep Italy within Eurozone deficit limits.

The need for this especially owes to a 2012 amendment, made at the height of the financial crisis, which introduced budget balancing into the Italian Constitution: made while the country was ruled by a cabinet of unelected technocrats, it was backed by both the PD and Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right. Unless some €23 billion in cuts are made this fall, an automatic mechanism will push the top rate of sales tax to 25.3 percent — costing the average household €541 a year.

Figures across the political spectrum have noted the risk that the creation of a government to impose such a manovra, only then to go to the polls this winter, will merely play into Salvini’s hands, allowing him to avoid direct personal responsibility for unpopular measures.

Carlo Calenda, a neoliberal-hawk PD member of the European Parliament and its economic development minister from 2016 to 2018, suggested with some exaggeration that such a move might risk pushing Salvini up to “60 percent” support. However, it is his own erstwhile ally Renzi who has gone furthest in backing a so-called governo di legislatura — a pact with M5S that would not only push through the manovra but remain in place throughout the whole parliamentary term, up till spring 2022.

At the level of combatting Salvini, forcing him into opposition could help slow his momentum. Over the last fourteen months as interior minister, he has far exceeded his brief by mounting well-orchestrated clashes with pro-refugee NGOs, trade unions, and Brussels. Declaring himself “Il Capitano,” Salvini has combined state power and his media presence to polarize the entire political field. He has thus made migration the dominant terrain of political controversy and identification, even though only a few thousand migrants have actually made it across the Mediterranean so far in 2019.

Salvini’s role in government, with all the favors it allows him to dish out, has helped him swallow up support across the right wing of Italian politics. Indeed, if it was a surprise in March 2018 that the Lega overtook Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (beating it by 17 to 14 percent), since that point, the party has rapidly swallowed up the forzista electoral base, as it extends its support into once-inhospitable Southern regions. However, while the Lega in office has been able to attract the backing of all manner of local political bosses, former Berlusconian personnel, and even figures in the world of organized crime, their allegiances are by definition fickle and opportunistic — hardly a stable basis for an opposition party.


The M5S-PD pact could not, however, survive on anti-Salvinism alone. Immigration probably won’t be a major split issue. Even before the March 2018 general election, Luigi Di Maio’s M5S had adopted a robust call for “zero boats” to land on Italian shores, and in government the party has meekly tailed Salvini’s own hard-line agenda, presenting the center-left as the allies of an illicit “migration business.” Yet while the PD has adopted a more “anti-racist” stance during the M5S-Lega government, its own last interior minister, Marco Minniti, made a deal with Libya to slash migrant numbers by 87 percent, and neither party is strongly defined by this issue.

More difficult is the issue of public works projects. Indeed, the final act of the M5S-Lega alliance was a vote on TAV, a high-speed rail line from Turin to Lyon, to which Conte gave the go-ahead in late July. M5S has long opposed this project as both a source of disruption to locals and a totemic example of the nexus between corrupt politicians and contractors lining their pockets, and tabled a Senate motion to condemn the project. The PD, Forza Italia, and the Lega all voted together to thwart the M5S motion. This was the immediate trigger for Salvini’s decision to explode the government, saying it was impossible to go on in partnership with “Mr. No.”

Yet the parties may draw together on another terrain, more likely to play into Salvini’s own narrative. Former prime minister Romano Prodi on August 19 called for a so-called “governo Ursula,” in reference to newly appointed European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. In the vote that confirmed her appointment, not only the PD and Forza Italia backed the German Christian-Democrat for the top job, but so, too, did the fourteen representatives of M5S. Himself a former Christian-Democrat and leader of privatizing “center-left” governments in 1996–98 and 2006–8, Prodi advocates a coalition of the pro-European center.

The exact composition of such a coalition is uncertain. While PD and M5S together hold a very slight majority of seats in both houses, and other left-wing votes could also be found to back such a coalition, former PD premier Enrico Letta has proposed that Forza Italia could be a kind of “responsible opposition,” refraining from “angrily shouting down” its measures. An open embrace of Berlusconi’s party would be especially difficult for M5S, not least as this arrangement will likely augur a shift within its ranks, with more “progressive” figures like parliamentary speaker Roberto Fico taking a more prominent role.

Yet even if such a coalition does take off, the immediate priority of the budget manovra looks likely to set it off on the wrong course. Since 2006, the PD has shed over 6 million votes, and in last year’s general election, it was the single party with the wealthiest and older electorate. In that election, as in 2013, the young, the unemployed, Southerners, and public-sector workers all swung behind M5S. That party’s many failings in both local and national government have seen it lose almost half its backing — and a yet more open embrace of the dogmas of budget cutting seem unlikely to revive its fortunes.

While Italians are mostly averse to euro exit, the ongoing austerity means that much political ground is to be won on the terrain of opposition to Brussels. Indeed, while in the run-up to the 2018 general election both the Lega and M5S abandoned their calls for a referendum on euro membership, in government they mounted theatrical clashes with the European Commission designed to show that they were, at least, trying. This was epitomized by a plan to run a 2.4 percent budget deficit, within Eurozone deficit limits but not low enough for the demands of Commission chiefs. The parties ultimately settled — absurdly — on a 2.04 percent deficit, hoping that voters wouldn’t notice the difference.

In opposition, the Lega can be expected to push harder on this issue, claiming that the M5S and PD are collaborating in enforcing “Brussels’s austerity” on Italians. In fact, the Lega is far from a supporter of strong welfare measures: its own biggest spending plan — a 15 percent “flat tax,” estimated to cost the Treasury up to €60 billion a year — would push at deficit limits only in order to redistribute cash toward the wealthiest households. If it does get to govern alone after early elections, it would likely even reverse the flagship M5S policy enacted by the last government, which offers €780 monthly payments to job seekers. Yet if an austerity-imposing PD-M5S alliance allows the Lega to avoid responsibility for the manovra, Salvini could easily point to yet another establishment stitch-up.

For now, many on the Left will hope that a stopgap is indeed possible — that some arrangement will come about to stop Salvini. The Lega’s rise from 17 percent support in 2013 to over 35 percent today has been built on a media bubble rather than solid grassroots organization, and it is possible that being pushed out of office will provide a humiliation to an interior minister who boasts of his “can-do” spirit. Given the current situation in the polls, there is a natural impulse to seek means to stop his imminent victory, and the five years of Lega rule that would surely follow.

But Salvini is a monster that has risen from a much deeper swamp. His own voter base is mainly drawn from the provincial middle classes and long-standing right-wing voters rather than blue-collar Italy or the poor. Yet after three decades in which unusual and opportunistic coalitions have presided over a constant decline in living standards, Italians have repeatedly shown themselves unbound to old political allegiances and ever more driven by resentment and despair. If the PD and M5S are merely a fresh face for another round of austerity, the “anti-Salvini” pact may yet see him come back with even greater force.