Italy’s Transition From One Weak Government to Another

The pact between the populist Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, engineered to keep Matteo Salvini from power, may have its days numbered.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addresses the upper house of parliament.
Giuseppe Conte will remain Italy's prime minister for now. (Yara Nardi / Reuters)

Updated at 12:15 p.m. ET on August 29, 2019.

Italy is a country of firsts. In its last national elections in 2018, it produced the first populist government in the heart of Europe. Now that’s given way to the first coalition government in the heart of Europe between a mainstream party and a populist party. Today, two sworn political enemies said they had come to an agreement to form an alliance with one goal: to block the rise of Matteo Salvini, the right-wing, populist interior minister who brought down the government in the hope of triggering a snap election in which his League party would likely place first.

The net result is that Italy has gone from one weak, incoherent government to another weak, incoherent government. But will this likely new government alliance—between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the establishment center-left Democratic Party—make Italy more stable, or less? Will it push back the far-right tide, or will teaming up drain both the allies in the new coalition government of political legitimacy and thus present precisely the opening Salvini needs to make a dramatic comeback?

Until he pulled the plug, Salvini had governed for 14 months as the junior coalition partner of the Five Star Movement, in a government that represented an angry protest vote. The two parties agreed on Giuseppe Conte, a law professor, as prime minister. For 14 months, Conte acted like a puppet. Last week, he resigned, accusing Salvini of endangering the country. Now Conte is back. Tomorrow, President Sergio Mattarella is expected to give him a mandate to form a new government with new coalition partners, which must pass a confidence vote in Parliament. (Together, the Five Stars and the Democratic Party have a majority.)

But Salvini—who is now both interior minister and opposition-leader-in-waiting—is already pouncing. This new government, Salvini said today, was likely hatched in Biarritz, at the G7 summit, at which Conte represented Italy. Conte, in Salvini’s view, was a prime minister “brought to you by Paris, Berlin, and Brussels.” This is classic Salvini rhetoric. His right-wing League party, which is first in the polls, won 34 percent of the vote in elections for the European Parliament by railing against Brussels, the seat of the European Union, as an oppressor of Italian sovereignty.* Although Salvini fancies himself in the Trump vein, he conveniently left out that President Donald Trump had endorsed Conte in a tweet yesterday.

There are many ironies at work here. One is that Italy seems to manage to have an anti-establishment without actually having a functional establishment. Another is that in order to push back the potential rise to power of an interior minister with a penchant for imitating Mussolini, and whose League is extremely strong at the regional and local level, the Democratic Party allied with the Five Star Movement, a party it had spent the past few years criticizing—and for good reason—as an opaque, incoherent cauldron of conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers, one whose internal decision making is done through online voting on a web platform owned by a private company.

The Democratic Party is now entering this government as the junior coalition member. Who’ll drive the bus? Will the PD moderate the Five Star Movement, or will the Five Star Movement taint the PD beyond recognition? In the current populist government, Salvini took over the driver’s seat from the start and rode close to power in the tailwinds of the Five Star Movement, using his perch in government for a permanent election campaign. He’s a clever tactician—or was one, before playing his hand in a call for elections, and losing. But the Democratic Party is deeply divided. Its leader is Nicola Zingaretti, but many of its MPs are loyal to its former leader, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, an aggressive back-seat driver.

In reiterating his call for new elections today, Salvini called the apparent new government alliance under Conte a “Monti encore.” He was referring to a favorite enemy: the technocratic Prime Minister Mario Monti, who governed from 2011 to 2013 with a mandate to stabilize Italy during the debt crisis, and on whose watch Italy raised the retirement age. Monti has been a convenient target for Salvini. He has become shorthand for austerity measures that have hit Italians’ bottom lines even if they’ve stabilized the country’s finances.

Monti, now a senator for life, is a mild-mannered economics professor with an understated, acerbic wit. On Italian television tonight, he was asked whether he would vote for a confidence measure in the potential new government. He squirmed a bit. It was one thing if the government’s mandate was to push back the “rimbarbarimento,” or encroaching barbarism, of Italians, he said. But the Five Star Movement, with its anti-establishment conspiracy theories about occult deep-state powers, had some major “democratic shortcomings.” Monti said he’d made his concerns known to Conte. But would Monti vote confidence in the new government? He didn’t answer the question.

This new government may already have its days numbered. Salvini is ready.

* This article originally misstated the proportion of the vote won by the League party in European Parliament elections in May. It was 34 percent, not 40 percent.