A traditional party and a populist movement may join forces to get Italy out of its political crisis and avoid yet another election.
Italy is infamous for its short-lived governments. Over the past two decades only TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi managed to complete a five-year term as prime minister, with a government reshuffle to break it up (2001-2006).
This week's government crisis ensued from the troubles between the two coalition parties: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), led by Luigi Di Maio, and the far-right League, led by Matteo Salvini, who was also acting as Interior Minister. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a previously unknown politician, resigned on Aug. 20.
The crisis followed the League's large electoral win in May's European elections. With 34% of votes, the League became the leading Italian party in the EU parliament and aspired to more votes in Italy itself. It was Salvini who said he no longer supported the coalition and wanted a new government. Salvini was however surprised to find out that an even more unlikely coalition may arise to avoid elections and a major League victory, as M5S started negotiations with the center-left Democratic Party (PD).
ROME — It is too soon to understand how Italy's political crisis is going to end, but after this week's initial talks between Italy's President Sergio Mattarella and the country's political leaders, there are good indications of how things will shape up: the League and the Five Star Movement (M5S) will not get back together and Giuseppe Conte will not be prime minister again — even if the M5S were to forge an alliance with the Democratic Party (PD).
Another thing that became clear during this tense and confused week is that Mattarella has no intention of allowing a repeat of last year's scenario, where the March 2018 vote led to three months of negotiations before a government was formed. Today, that is simply inconceivable, and the days that the president will grant parties to reach an agreement will be few. Moreover, Mattarella seems opposed to giving the go-ahead to a narrow majority, held together only by the unwillingness to trigger new elections.
The only possible solution, therefore, is the anomalous pact between PD and M5S.
Mattarella is also asking parties to start thinking about a possible candidate to preside over a new government — to avoid wasted efforts on choosing a new prime minister.
So it is almost only by inertia that the hypothesis of a M5S-PD government seems to have made another step forward. PD leader Nicola Zingaretti received a full mandate from the party management to negotiate with M5S's Luigi Di Maio, while the M5S said they stood strongly behind their political leader. But let's face it: These initial indications face several difficult agreements until they can turn into a concrete way out of the political crisis.
The fact remains that there are no other clear alternatives at hand — except maybe for an interim government that would bring the country to new elections in the fall. The only possible solution, therefore, is the anomalous pact between PD and M5S.
President Mattarella and Zingaretti in Rome — Photo: Presidenza della Repubblica
One wonders, then, what has changed compared to 2013 and 2014, when the then PD leaders tried — in vain — to convince the M5S to embark on a joint government venture. There was definitely a harsh reality check to which the M5S and their theories of "happy degrowth" were submitted during this government experiment. What matters most is that the M5S has lost a lot of ground among voters.
But it remains paradoxical that Di Maio and Zingaretti are moved by divergent interests: the former fears a vote that could halve the votes they obtained last year, while the latter could emerge from that election with a stronger party and an indisputable popular legitimacy.
There was definitely a harsh reality check.
It is certainly not by chance, then, that Zingaretti included among his pre-conditions a "discontinuity in both people and contents" which, depriving Conte and Di Maio of any role, represents an almost insurmountable obstacle for the M5S. Yet, despite this, no door has been slammed in Zingaretti's face.
So, that's it. The conversations are ongoing to create a new alliance between a "traditional" party and a populist movement. It is somehow reminiscent of what is happening in Madrid these days, between the socialists of Pedro Sanchez and the Podemos party of Pablo Iglesias. With the difference — perhaps not irrelevant — that in Spain, the socialists are stronger than their interlocutors, while here the M5S has almost twice the strength of the PD in parliament.