Italy and political uncertainty have always gone hand-in-hand, but this midsummer government crisis goes beyond every conceivable scenario
The crisis officially started on August 8, when the League and the Five Star Movement split up on the high-speed rail link between Turin and Lyon (TAV). The League leader and Interior minister Matteo Salvini issued a press release stating that there was no longer a majority and that early elections are needed as soon as possible. While other political parties were still trying to figure out how to turn the situation into parliamentary actions, Salvini immediately pushed for an electoral race to capitalize on the increasing consensus, as his poll numbers were through the roof with around 40% of preferences among voters.
Apparently, while all major parties claimed to be ready for new elections, the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party started negotiations off the books to build a new government to avoid the rise of VAT rate from 22 to 25% in 2020. In particular, Beppe Grillo and Matteo Renzi, old nemeses and respectively founding father of the Movement and former Secretary and Prime Minister for the Democrats, both fancied the idea in function anti-League.
Perhaps, Salvini was caught unprepared, as he did not take into account this possibility, so he looked in trouble in the following days. When the Senate rescheduled Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s speech about the crisis to August 20 — postponing Salvini’s desired date, August 13 — this latter unexpectedly started losing the grip on the situation. It was now clear that he was trying to capitalize his consensus: the quicker the elections will be held, the better the scenario is for the Northern League (and the worse for the others).
Wait-and-see: the strategy behind the so-called ‘Ursula’s front’
Salvini might be more easily tackled by simply waiting for the media bubble to burst. His opponents know — or at least they hope — that the now former Interior Minister cannot fan the flames of anti-immigration policies forever, as Italians might start to get tired of listening to the same song, especially without him being in charge by choice and during a deep political crisis. They are afraid of unruled immigration, but they also need and demand concrete solutions to real problems like unemployment and a structurally shrinking economy.
For this reason, the wait-and-see attitude of the opposition could prove to be the worst scenario for Salvini. Moreover, it should not be underestimated that the Five Star Movement’s constitutional bill on the reduction of the number of congressmen could come to the aid of the so-called Ursula’s front opposing the right. Indeed, a constitutional revision requires months to be adopted and the calling of a referendum upon request of a qualified majority of congressmen, five regions or 500.000 Italian citizens.
We must give credit to a parliamentary opposition which, despite its irreconciliable divisions, had already found common ground in voting for Ursula von der Leyen as EU Commission President. The parties that voted for Von der Leyen in the European Parliament (the Democratic Party, Free and Equal, Forward Italy and — now not so surprisingly — the Five Star Movement) have been recently pointed out by former Prime Minister and EU Commission President Romano Prodi, as a political spectrum capable of stopping Salvini’s rise by converging towards a few but clear focal points of a more credible, shared political program.
So here we are. Yesterday, Prime Minister Conte attended the session of the Senate to officially step down. While tendering his resignation, Conte seized the opportunity to metaphorically drop bombs on Matteo Salvini: ranging from his misuse of religion during his term to the Italian Russiagate, the former Prime Minister flexed his muscles, finally showing who should be running the government, after 14 rather anonymous months.
Although Conte had his moment in the spotlight, in the end he had to hand in his notice, as the yellow-green majority was already assigned to history.
Right now, the future of the country is in President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella’s hands, as he has the power to carry out consultations with all the political forces, to find a new ruling majority. Otherwise, elections look inevitable.
Mattarella has not met all the parties yet, thus — leaving aside the strategies made of extremely variable political declarations — the crisis might lead to any of these conclusions:
Early elections. Although Salvini and other right-wing parties (among which Brothers of Italy) are pushing hard for early elections as they expect to have a majority, it is unlikely that President Mattarella dissolves parliament, especially because of the relatively short life of the Assembly (the last elections were held in March last year). Moreover, there is a budget law that needs to be urgently adopted by the end of the fall, otherwise the VAT will dramatically rise to 25%, with all the economic consequences that this entails. A possible new cabinet could simply not meet the deadline. Nowadays, this appears to be the less likely chance, although part of the electorate wants to vote.
Transition government. Everything would point to a functional cabinet handling the budget law and the elections. However, it would represent a spineless executive, due to its limited scope. In addition, Italians do not seem to want a weak cabinet, owing to the very precarious situation on both the international and the national fronts.
Unity government. This represents a practical opportunity for many of the stakeholders. Especially for senior figures from the ranks of the Democratic Party (Matteo Renzi, Dario Franceschini and Romano Prodi) a new government should take office up to the end of the parliamentary term in 2023. This is the bugbear of Salvini, who would be backed into a corner. Indeed, while long and complicated discussions among the concerned political actors are normal at this point, this seems to be everyone else’s favorite scenario in Italy and abroad, representing also an embankment against the sovereign drift. Both the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party are currently working on this solution.
Sure, in order to avoid the definitive access to power of Salvini and the right, it seems that the Democrats and the Five Stars need to bite the orange in order to peel it, leaving behind a history full of skirmishes and insults. Still, there is a lot of ground to cover and time is running fast.
What is certain is that, whatever the government, the next Prime Minister has to undertake a critical challenge. Many problems are simply crushing the country for far too long and a decisive action is needed.