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.
Read: Salvini puts Italy on a collision course with Europe
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.)