Stability out of chaos: Italy has a new government

On the 4th of September, the new governing team in Italy was defined. Hopefully, the country is now ready to take on a new governmental experience, the fifth in the last 7 years. This time, distinct from previous cases in Italian history, the point of rupture that led to the new government was created by the majority, and not by the parliamentary opposition.

Matteo Salvini is the leader of Lega, the most prominent political party in Italy at the moment, with a share of 33.4%. The last electoral polls, published by Italian research agency SWG, showed a lead by Lega (also known as the Northern League or the Carroccio), followed by the M5S (Cinque Stelle or Five Star Movement) at 21.4%, and PD (Partito Democratico or Democratic Party) at 21.1%. Despite Lega’s clear lead, the break in the Italian political continuity was sought by Lega’s leader Salvini, who was also former vice deputy Prime Minister. Lega now finds itself ousted from the new governmental coalition, but not from the balance of power, as it commands a solid parliamentary opposition — ready to act quickly in the event of any governmental instability involving the new PD/M5S coalition.

The new government is comprised of 10 ministers from M5S and 9 from PD, one from LEU (a small left-wing party fundamental to the successful creation of the governmental coalition), and one technocratic. Only 7 ministers have been assigned to women, a mere one-third of the total 21; given the air of change inspiring the new government, there’s reason to believe they could have achieved more in that regard.

Among the new ministers are Luigi Di Maio, Minister of Foreign Affairs; Luciana Lamorgese, Minister of the Interior; and Stefano Patuanelli, Minister of Economic Development. Hopefully, the formation of the new team will not be questioned before the end of the coalition’s mandate in 2023, avoiding any new period of political stall.

The governmental crisis in Italy began officially on the 8th of August, when the Lega party declared its lack of faith in its governing coalition with M5S, and sought once again a new popular vote. The straw that broke Lega’s back came on the 7th of August, with motions from M5S against Lega’s proposals for a high-speed train connection, known as TAV (Treno ad Alta Velocità). That initiated a period of conflict and stress between members of the former coalition, holders of the “contratto di governo” (i.e., governmental contract).

According to Lega’s representatives, the obstruction presented by M5S to Lega’s proposals pushed Salvini’s party to seek new elections. But such confidence and aggression on the part of Lega can be explained by the fact that because Lega was experiencing a growth in popular support, culminating in their success in the European Parliamentary elections, Lega (i.e., Salvini) decided to reach further for a government in which they held absolute majority — and yet more power. On that basis, on the 9th of August, Salvini forwarded to Giuseppe Conte, the Italian prime minister, a motion of distrust in the government coalition. From that moment, chaos reigned in Italy until August 20th, when Conte resigned from his role and officially ended the Lega/M5S coalition government.

As confusion mounted, circumstances became more suspect. Salvini claimed that in order to restore a positive and secure status to Italy, he needed to be conferred with full powers for one year. Lega had pushed for an earlier deadline for their motion of distrust, but then dismissed it. Salvini’s political proclamations occurred at the Papeete Beach Club, rather than at traditional institutional locations. Parties of the former coalition began attacking each other, evidencing the profound incompatibility inherent in their “contratto di governo.” This rupture between Lega and M5S permitted the return of PD to the political scene. The center left PD party, already stronger after the European Parliamentary elections, became prominent in the midst of the confusion. Italian President Mattarella, before beginning consultations with the leaders of the parties, invoked the resolution by means of a new political majority rather than resorting to new elections.

The first round of consultations on the 21th of August was challenging and without a successful result. The parties fiercely maintained their own interests, frightened by the idea of losing their position in the government. The debate among the three main political parties starred political actors rather than political programs, proving the unwillingness of Italian politicians to strive for political stability, followed by reforms. It also demonstrated the lack of will in sacrificing their positions, if needed, for the sake of a solid political program (as seen in the debates before the consultations). Italy surely needs debate on policy and reforms, rather than political actors.

The second round began on the 27th and finished the following day, resulting in the rapprochement of the M5S and PD parties. Di Maio, former vice deputy Prime Minister, announced that a new agreement on the government had been reached, and the coalition was ready to take on the new mandate led by Prime Minister Conte.

Before the agreement between M5S and PD, Salvini tried desperately to bridge the gap with M5S that he and his party had created. Lega even offered Di Maio the title of prime minister, doing everything possible to avoid a new governmental coalition that excluded Lega. Even the newly formed M5S/PD coalition experienced a bumpy process in their efforts to integrate their different political approaches. Before reaching the official agreement, M5S and PD discussed many political topics, but fundamental in order to seal the temporary agreement was determining Conte’s destiny, to agree on the ministers, and to agree on their use of the Rousseau platform (which allows citizen involvement in government decisions). While debate on the ministers seems logical when it involves two political parties with different programs, the decision regarding Conte returning as prime minister was less straightforward.

Because M5S had been part of the previous governing coalition (and PD had not), PD had initially sought a solution that avoided the presence of Conte — in order to ensure political discontinuity. Gradually, that demand by the PD yielded to the desire by M5S to have Conte continue. 

On the other hand, there was some additional drama at the end of the discussions on formation of the government. As the deal was about to be sealed, the M5S leadership stood up again, recalling that the decision could not be valid without agreement from its party members. The M5S has been using a platform of open government called “Rousseau,” which permits its member subscribers to vote on politically relevant matters. Luckily, the Rousseau vote passed, and M5S saw their wish fulfilled.

Having overcome all of these obstacles, Italy saw the formation of its new government on the 5th of September. The process has been officialized with the positive vote of confidence given by the Senate and the Parliament. 

The new government has to perform well in order to avoid Salvini’s resurgence, whose ideal could penetrate better this time after the new governmental crisis. Doubts have already been expressed by analysts on the durability of the new coalition, and those suspicions are more than legitimate. Indeed, the new government now seeks coordination between two main parties that could not seem to get along until just two weeks ago.

In any case, the major uncertainties have been resolved according to the will of the M5S, the real winner in this governmental crisis. The party has shown bigger purchasing power with respect to the other parties in Italy, being able to orchestrate well the progress of the discussions. 

As there is a winner, there are also losers, and of course that is Lega. More specifically, the mistakes made have been Salvini’s, who had not been stopped or supervised by his party members. Salvini erred in his timing — he attempted to take over the former government in the middle of August, when he would have stood a better chance right after the results of the European elections. His error is deep. Salvini chose a hazardous play and has been burnt by the institutional mechanisms of checks and balances that prevented an immediate return to new elections. For the Lega party, it was the first time since its creation that the group led the country, the pinnacle of a project launched more than 30 years ago. Given that, Salvini’s recent choices weaken his position also internally — with members of Lega, but also with voters, who are now criticizing his modus operandi. 

But Lega is not alone, and the PD can be listed among the losers. The governmental crisis could have been conducted in a much more powerful way by the fresh PD secretary general Zingaretti, who decided to step aside for most of the developments and allow old governmental stalwarts such as Matteo Renzi to handle matters. The party also changed its approach — from rejecting M5S as a political party, to bending at their wish in order to form a coalition. To explain this conduct (as well as others), it can be inferred that the parties became flexible, one much more than the other, in order to avoid the bigger risk of Lega at the electoral polls. Along this line is another criticism from Salvini, who now insists that this new coalition has been orchestrated in the highest places, pleasing the European community.

Europe can indeed be pleased that one of the founding countries of the European Union is now realigning with a pro-Europe attitude, returning to normal standards of fundamental law and human rights protection. In this case, continuity can be said to be achieved if we consider the fact that Salvini as been replaced by Lamorgese, an expert in migration policy and security who stands for ideals at the opposite end of Salvini’s. Nevertheless, signs of change more profound than this must result. The changes must include a proper budgetary plan to propose to the EU, which is the first of many obstacles that this government will face (and which has defeated many governments before this one). 

Until more facts are known, further forecasts cannot be analyzed too seriously. The coalition is ready, the agreement is real — if a bit vague, as it was done in a rush, fearing that the coalition could collapse before the signing of the agreement.

Like a late employee, Italy arrived just in time at the office. Now it is up to the country to schedule its plan, and to assume its national and international duties.

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