By Ishaan Tharoor* – The Washington Post
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte opted to resign Tuesday rather than face a no-confidence vote he was likely to lose. In doing so, Conte confirmed the collapse of one of the more intriguing recent political experiments in Europe: a populist ruling alliance that came to power just 14 months ago amid a surge of anti-establishment frustration in Italy.
But the divisions within the coalition bedeviled its prospects from the outset. On Tuesday, Conte delivered a fiery speech in the Italian senate, directing much of his ire at Matteo Salvini, the influential far-right deputy prime minister whose decision to withdraw his party’s support from the government triggered the current crisis.
Salvini, who is also the country’s interior minister, is the most popular politician in Italy. His anti-immigrant, hard-line League, a once-marginal regional party, has soared in popularity and is polling at about 38 percent — a significant figure in the country’s multiparty democracy. At the same time, the fortunes of the Five Star Movement — the somewhat ideologically inchoate, anti-establishment party that is the single biggest faction in Italy’s Parliament — have dimmed. Conte, a legal scholar with no political experience, was plucked from relative obscurity to lead the government as a neutral figurehead, but is closer to the Five Star Movement.
“The interior minister has shown that he is following his own interests and those of his party,” Conte said in his Tuesday address to a packed Senate, where lawmakers had returned from holiday for an emergency session. The speech carried a degree of political theater: Salvini, still technically Conte’s deputy, sat right next to an outgoing prime minister tearing into him for endangering the country and tipping it down a “a spiral of political uncertainty and financial instability.”
At one moment when Conte attacked Salvini for endangering Italy’s secular political culture, the latter pulled out his rosary and kissed it.
The havoc in Rome adds uncertainty to critical upcoming negotiations over debt-ridden Italy’s budget and spells trouble for the rest of Europe. “The timing of this crisis is worrisome,” noted Andrea Montanino, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “It arrives at a critical juncture for Europe amid the risk of recession in Germany and the formation of the new European Commission, and could contribute to the deterioration of confidence in the Eurozone.”
What happens next is a bit complicated. Italian President Sergio Mattarella will meet Wednesday with the country’s various party leaders to see whether a new government coalition can be formed. He may choose to retain Conte or pick a technocrat to lead a short-lived caretaker government that can pass a budget. Alternatively, the Five Star Movement may try to build a new coalition with the center-left Democratic Party, or PD, an alliance that was once unthinkable but now may suit both parties. Failing that, a snap election would be called to be held probably by the end of October.
In the present environment, Salvini and the League could win decisively and probably build a ruling coalition with an ultranationalist party even further to the right than them. In the past couple of years, Salvini has channeled nationalist anger both over immigration and the diktats of Brussels; he has siphoned support from the waning Italian center right and become arguably the most important far-right politician in Western Europe. Even an ongoing scandal over allegations that Salvini’s party sought illegal Russian financing has failed to curb his popularity.
Under Salvini’s watch, Italy adopted a tough new approach to migrant arrivals. He used his political platform to grandstand over Italy’s Catholic identity and repeatedly found ways to poke European Union officials in the eye. “An election could lead to Italy getting its most uncompromisingly right- wing government since Mussolini,” observed the Economist.
But Salvini may have miscalculated. Two weeks ago, when he announced his
decision to pull out of the populist coalition, “Salvini was confident of precipitating early elections and winning them,” noted the Financial Times. “It has proved to be more complicated. The timetable was not his to control. The idea of a coalition between Five Star and the center-left Democrats, two parties which hate each other, has gained more traction than expected, raising the possibility that the League could be locked out of power for years.”
In an interview with my colleague Chico Harlan, Nathalie Tocci, director of the Italian International Affairs Institute, chalked up Salvini’s decision-making to “hubris.”
“He thinks he can get 50 percent of the vote,” Tocci said. “What he has done can only be explained in this way. He was already in charge. He was in charge without having to always take responsibility.”
Now, there’s the distinct prospect of Salvini getting relegated to the opposition. “Staying ‘on the outside’ and playing the part [that Salvini himself] called ‘Mr. No’ can be dangerous for him,” Ilvo Diamanti, a pollster and professor of political science, told my colleagues. “Yes, he would find new targets while being in the opposition, but … I don’t know about the long-run.”
But Italy’s other political actors are no more secure. In 2017, Luigi di Maio, Five Star’s youthful leader, told Today’s WorldView that his anti-establishment party had no “intention of exalting nationalistic sentiments” if it ended up in power. But the movement’s brand has been badly tarnished in part by its alliance with the hyper-nationalist Salvini, who has a far simpler, angrier message for disaffected Italian voters.
In European elections this year, the Five Star Movement hemorrhaged support both to the League and the PD. Now, an alliance with the PD may be its best bet to stave off further political calamity.
“Today the Italian populist dream fails,” tweeted Matteo Renzi, a former Italian prime minister and PD senator. “Populists only succeed during election campaigns, they fail in government. In 14 months they have cancelled growth, isolated Italy, created a climate of hatred. They have lost.”
That may be so, but, as of yet, no one else seems to be winning.
*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York. Follow @ishaantharoor