Italy’s Leaders Are Divided on Policy, United in Fear of One Man

The far-right politician Matteo Salvini has triggered a government crisis, forcing parties that despise one another to contemplate alliances, if only to block his rise.

Matteo Salvini addresses parliamentarians in Rome.
Matteo Salvini is at the center of Italy's latest political crisis. (Remo Casilli / Reuters)

In the days since the Italian government fell, finding an alternative governing coalition has been less politics and more physics. Italy’s various political forces—right and left, north and south—are divided into 1 million pieces, but are revolving around one center of gravity: Matteo Salvini.

Before withdrawing from the coalition this month, triggering the crisis, Salvini—Italy’s interior minister and the head of the right-wing-populist League party—used his 15 months in government to run a permanent election campaign. He pushed back against the European Union and used an “Italians first” message to rail against immigrants, theatrically closing Italian ports to boats carrying migrants, while leavening his tough-guy message on social media with videos of puppies and pictures of food.

This saw the League’s popularity rise in the polls to nearly 40 percent, double that of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, its senior partner in government. In withdrawing from the coalition, Salvini accused the Five Star Movement of blocking the economy. Mostly what it was blocking was his own path to power. Today Salvini is gunning for snap elections in which the League might well place first, creating the first far-right government in a pillar of the EU.

That possibility has put the fear of God not just into EU leaders, but into most of Italy’s political parties, from the center-left, such as it is, to the Five Star Movement. Italian President Sergio Mattarella said yesterday that he would support only a solid new coalition capable of passing a confidence vote in Parliament; otherwise, he would have to call new elections, a decision he said would not be taken lightly, since the fate of the country and economy are at stake. If Italy has no government in place to pass the national budget this fall, the value-added tax will go up, further paralyzing Italy’s already flagging economy.

Unless the League and the Five Star Movement can patch things up, which seems unlikely but not impossible, the most likely alternative coalition would be between the Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party. But this would be highly unusual—and problematic—as it would mean a total about-face for both parties. The Five Star Movement up until now governed with the far-right League; both parties are generally euroskeptic and want to rewrite Italy’s treaties with Europe. Why would the Five Star Movement suddenly shift to the left? And the pro-Europe Democratic Party has for years been opposed to allying with the Five Star Movement. Italy today is a sea of protest voters, allied into parties held together by anger more than ideas.

Whether Salvini will get the elections he wants is unclear. He may have overplayed his hand. But his gamble has revealed the deep ideological and personal fissures on the Italian left, as well as questions about what, if anything, the Five Star Movement stands for. What is going on here? It’s not about policy, the columnist Ezio Mauro wrote today in La Repubblica, a center-left daily; “all of this is tactics.”

A split in the Democratic Party between its current leader, Nicola Zingaretti, and his predecessor, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi—Salvini’s nemesis—is permanent and reveals divides that go beyond personality, Mauro wrote. But the question for the Five Star Movement is equally existential. If it decides to shed the League for the center-left, what is it? Swapping alliances “the way you change clothes” is dangerous, Mauro argued, “because it involves radically different visions, values, methods and horizons.”

The Five Star Movement is an extremely ambiguous party. It drew protest voters from both the right and the left with a platform of fighting corruption, defending Italy’s natural resources, and generally sticking it to the man. An experiment in direct democracy but a troubling first for Western representative democracy, its internal policy decisions are made via a secret online vote using a web platform managed by a private company—a phenomenon Italy’s privacy authority has sanctioned as not transparent. (The New York Times’ Jason Horowitz has a good explainer that discusses the Five Star Movement’s penchant for creative math and its flirtation with conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers, and anti-Semitism.)

If the League is a leader, Salvini, with no party—or a party whose platform he radically changed—then the Five Star Movement is a party with no clear leader. Its founder and soul is a former comedian; its face is a former small businessman; and its brain is an internet entrepreneur who manages the party’s web platform. The party vowed that its members of Parliament would serve only one term, but now that it’s gotten pretty comfortable in Parliament, it’s experimenting with ways to circumvent its own rules. In government, it has endorsed Salvini’s hard line on immigration, even if it hasn’t been as vocal or theatrical in its attacks on immigrants. (The two parties’ views are “very much the same,” but they express them “in a very different way,” Marta Grande, a Five Star lawmaker, told me in an interview.)

There is no easy solution to the government crisis. Italy is a fairly conservative country, but since the decline of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, voters have no options on the center-right, leaving only Salvini’s far-right League. For now, all we know is that the Five Star Movement might turn to the left after working with the right, because Salvini dropped it. And the Democratic Party may turn to the Five Star Movement, a party it has long despised, in order to block Salvini. Beyond that, it’s hard to know if they share any common ground. Which, as Mauro pointed out, is tactics, not policy, and dangerous for democracy.

Such an alliance would only strengthen Salvini. Whether in government or opposition, he excels at playing the victim of an establishment out to get him. In or out of power, he still has everyone else playing defense.