Like his political counterpart Boris Johnson, Matteo Salvini’s gambit in Italy has failed miserably

Parallels can be overdone. But there is much here in common with UK: The game-playing, the unlikely alliances, and now, the defeat of a divisive leader who sought to defy democracy

Jane Fae
Wednesday 04 September 2019 12:21 BST
Italian internal minister Matteo Salvini calls for Italians to decide the future in a new election

Exciting times! As the party of government drifts rightward: an unscrupulous populist seeks to trigger elections to convert his minority into unstoppable majority. Meanwhile, the opposition, in all its myriad forms, is at sixes and sevens with itself.

A description of the UK in 2019? Not quite. For once, this is not about the rancorous doings of Boris Johnson the Blusterer. No: this is the tale of another populist, Italy's Matteo Salvini, affectionately dubbed “il Capitano” (the Captain), who has just suffered one of the swiftest, most disastrous falls from political grace since Lucifer fell out with God Almighty! What went wrong?

Here is a story for our times: one to cheer the despondent, as well as provide a salutary lesson or two to unbridled ambition.

It begins with an election, March 2018, and an inconclusive result. The largest party by far, taking 227 out of 630 National Assembly seats (and 32 per cent of the vote) was the contrarian 5Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). On the right, a plethora of parties did well, but, with no one dominating, the runner-up was the ultra-conservative Lega on 123 seats (17 per cent of the vote). Close behind, the former ruling Partito Democratico (PD) with 111 seats (19 per cent).

Since both PD and 5Star are, approximately, left-leaning, many assumed this would lead to a Red/Yellow coalition. The numbers were there; but this ignores the long-running hostility between the two. To the amazement of all, after much wrangling, Italy adopted an interesting compromise.

A non-aligned PM – Giuseppe Conte – would preside over an unlikely alliance of contrasting populisms and two deputy prime ministers: Matteo Salvini, leader of la Lega, took the Ministry of the Interior; Luigi Di Maio, for 5Star, occupied the Ministry for Economic Development.

For a time, this worked. Italy had a functioning government without need for further elections: there was stability, of sorts. Except, this was an uneasy alliance. Salvini was far and away the larger than life and by taking a strong – brutal – approach to immigration and other hot button issues. The polls turned. By July 2019, Lega was on 37 per cent: PD 22.5 per cent; and M5S 17.5 per cent

Add in personal and policy disagreements over a raft of issues, from tax to minimum wage: an ongoing battle of machismos, including a tasteless and much-commented display of “trophy fiancées”, and the coalition was in trouble.

In early August, Salvini pulled the plug, declaring the coalition dead, arguing loudly that he needed “pieni poteri” (full powers) to govern effectively and demanding elections. This was an ill-judged turn of phrase, given that the last person to ask such a thing was Mussolini in 1922. And that did not end well.

But this was about the programme, no? Nothing to do with the fact that at 37 per cent, Lega, with potential support from even further right Fratelli d'Italia, would likely sweep the country, forming the most right-wing government seen in Western Europe since the war.

Then it all went wrong. Slapping down his demand for elections, Conte said it was not for Salvini to summon parliament. Next, as Salvini and his party walked out of government, and Conte resigned, the unexpected happened.

First, Sergio Mattarella, president of the Italian Republic, asked Conte if another coalition was possible: this time between PD and 5Star. At the same time, Salvini's blatant bid for power went down badly. Very badly. Since July, the Lega vote has collapsed, perhaps by as much as a fifth.

It seems tolerance for Salvini's boorish exceptionalism has its limits. From abusing his ministerial rank to give his son a ride on a police jet ski, to waving his rosary beads around in parliament, criticism has been growing. Meanwhile, growing evidence of shady dealings in Moscow has done him few favours. And the public has a new name for him: "il Capitone" (the eel).

Still, the defenestration of Salvini was not entirely hiccup-free. Faced with crisis, the first response by PD was for current and past leadership to fall out. Then there is the enduring friction between PD and 5Star. Nor was it a done deal until last night, when Rousseau pronounced it so.

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No, not Rousseau the 18th century philosopher, but Rousseau the online voting system, by which 5Star consults its members before any major change to policy and direction. And one final twist: the nail-biting finish was delayed as the system glitched at the last minute and those wishing to know the fate of Italy's government waited for IT support to arrive.

Powerless and excluded, Salvini and his allies are left to fume about career politicians seeking comfortable seats at the table. Except these are seats he voluntarily vacated. Calls for supporters to come out on to the streets have fallen flat as this tweet demonstrates:

(Translation: "Did he not resign as Interior Minister? Did not his colleagues resign as committee chairs? Yet this Lega idiot talks of a market in “armchairs”? Truth is: he chopped off his own legs! #ConteRound2 #Rousseau #LegaThieves.")

Parallels can be overdone. But there is much here in common with UK. The game-playing. The unlikely alliances. Even the involvement of Steve Bannon who had been setting up a school for political gladiators in a former Italian monastery, until the culture minister threw him out.

Those on the Italian left are not thrilled. But, they mostly concede, it is less bad outcome than might have been.

Last word, then, to Matteo Renzi, former PD secretary and former prime minister: “The UK and Italy have shown in the past few hours that our institutions are a serious thing, stronger than both Johnson and Salvini. Parliaments 2 - Populists 0”.

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