Become a Patron

Italy: Explaining the Chaos

Update [28/08/2019]: the PD and M5S have declared their intention to form a government lead by previous PM Giuseppe Conte. No program has been agreed upon as of yet. M5S will hold a vote in the coming days on their online platform Russeau for their members to confirm the deal.

Italy is a mess. With an average of nearly one new government per year since the Republic was founded in 1946 (that’s 65 governments in just over 72 years), this is not new.  While it would be nice to explain the current political crisis in such simple terms, it is hard to overstate the significance of the next few days. In one potential scenario, Italy holds new elections followed by a right-wing government led by Lega (ID), supported by their allies, Fratelli d’Italia (ECR) and the remnants of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (EPP).  In another potential scenario, the Frankenstein coalition of the Five Star Movement (M5S-NI) and Lega gets replaced by a Young Frankenstein coalition of M5S and the Democratic Party (PD-S&D).  In a less likely scenario, Italian President Sergio Mattarella attempts to form an interim technocrat government to pass a budget law then calls new elections; and in one final scenario, Thanos snaps his fingers and none of this matters anyway.

Should the next government be able to last more than two years, it will choose the next President of the Republic in 2022, a post with a seven year mandate.

How did we get here?

The now-defunct coalition of big-tent populist M5S and Lega, headed by compromise Prime Minister Conte, was an odd one when it began and nearly collapsed several times over its 14 months of life. M5S rose to prominence through a mixture of anti-establishment rhetoric and an appeal to former left-wing voters, combining policies to reduce the size of Parliament and the pay of its members with a universal income plan, and ideals such as direct democracy through the internet. Lega, formerly a northern secessionist party and the weird little tiebreaker for various Italian governing coalitions, grew exponentially after 2014 through their anti-immigration rhetoric and transitioned quickly to a more traditional right-wing party with mass appeal. While M5S tried to give away money to unemployed Italians, Lega tried to cut taxes; where M5S tried to join the mainstream in the European Parliament, Lega opposed any proposal for a new Commission President. There was also a disagreement about a high-speed rail that M5S opposed and Lega wanted.

The coalition survived every dispute until polls consistently began to show Lega could lead a government with their old coalition partners FI and FdI. The aforementioned train dispute was then cited by Lega as irresolvable and the government fell apart.  President Mattarella has set Tuesday the 27th of August as the deadline to form a new government with the current Parliament, failing which he will likely call a new election. At the moment talks could result in a left-leaning PD-M5S government or in the continuation of the Lega-M5S partnership under a new Prime Minister.

Right-Wing Lega (ID)

Lega wants to be in government and to keep the center-left PD (S&D) out of power. While Lega was happy to collapse the coalition that put them in government when polls showed them at 37%, a 20 point bump from their 2018 results, and a LEGA-FdI-FI coalition winning a comfortable majority, party leader Matteo Salvini has stated he is willing to do anything to stop a PD-M5S deal.  This reportedly includes negotiating a new deal with M5S. At the same time, Lega undersecretary Giancarlo Giorgetti has stated he is ready and proud to join the opposition.

According to a Winpoll poll conducted August 21st-23rd, 83% of Lega voters want new elections to be held, while only 7% want to return to government with M5S.

Center-Left Democratic Party (S&D)

The PD wants to stop a Lega government. While the prospect of negotiating with M5S, until recently the senior partner of a right-wing party in government, caused an uproar within the party and led to weeks of extreme internal disagreements, heavyweight voices such as Party Secretary Nicola Zingaretti and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – previously opposed to an agreement with M5S – pushed strongly for negotiations to open.  Talks began last Friday, and dissent within the party has since died down. Should talks fail and a new election occur, polling indicates the PD would in any case improve on its last result by a significant margin. Regardless of what happens, party members will likely fall in line in the end. So far the PD has reportedly been ready to accept many demands from M5S, but refuses a new mandate for the popular – especially within M5S – Prime Minister Conte.

Update [29/08/2019]: The PD has warmed up to the idea of a new mandate for Conte. A new dispute has risen over M5S leader Di Maio reportedly wanting to be Vice-PM once again, with the PD not wanting him in government at all. PD leader Zingaretti, President of the Lazio region, does not intend to be in government.

According to Winpoll, 62% of PD voters want their party to govern with M5S, while 21% would prefer new elections.

Anti-Establishment Five Star Movement (NI)

M5S wants to stay relevant. After an uncontested victory in 2018, emerging 15 points ahead of second place PD, the senior partner in government ended up playing second fiddle to Lega for over a year and came in a distant third place in the 2019 European Parliament elections. Due to their partnership with Lega and their uncertain stance on most issues, they were rejected in spectacular fashion by every European Parliament group after approaching everybody from left-wing GUE/NGL to national-conservative ECR.  This left the party unaffiliated, trying to improve their status by voting for Ursula von der Leyen, the compromise “establishment” Commission President.

An agreement with the PD would see M5S remain in government instead of likely halving their numbers in a new election and could improve their status in the European Parliament. Not all in M5S are ready to join “the establishment” with the PD however, with leading voices like populist Alessandro Di Battista opposing the deal. For the rest of the M5S leadership, any government deal rests on passage of their law to reduce the size of Parliament, a bill that needed only to go through the final steps in the long Italian legislative process before the government collapsed. Any agreement will have to pass a direct online vote of the roughly 70,000 M5S members enrolled on their web platform Rousseau, which 14 months ago overwhelmingly voted to accept the M5S-Lega agreement.

According to Winpoll, 43% of M5S voters want their party to govern with the PD, 22% want new elections, and 16% would prefer a new Lega-M5S government.

Center-Right Forza Italia (EPP)

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s FI, a staple in Italian governments for 20 years before the Great Recession, wants only to return to power. Rumors flew of a potential pro-EU PD-M5S-FI deal but that seems to have stopped at the rumor stage, with FI betting on a Lega victory and attacking the PD in public statements and online advertisements.

According to Winpoll 69% of FI voters want new elections, with Don’t Knows standing at 20%.

Right-Wing Fratelli d’Italia (ECR)

FdI mainly seeks to remain on the right of Italian politics. If they can do so in government with Lega, even better for them, and at the moment they look forward to doing just that.

According to Winpoll 81% of FdI voters want new elections.

The Italian Left

The stance of the handful of left-wing parties remains unclear. There are rumors of an attempt to make a deal with M5S, where some of the old guard remains committed to their left-wing populist ideals, while there is also some tough talk about wanting to prove themselves in an election. In any case, the Italian left has only shrunk since their poor showing in 2018 and remains mostly irrelevant in the current chaos.

According to Winpoll 62% of left-wing SI and liberal +E voters want a PD-M5S government, 12% want new elections, and 21% just don’t know.

Liberal Più Europa (RE)

Più Europa (More Europe) has stayed mostly silent on the current PD-M5S talks.

Update [27/08/2019]: +E party Secretary Della Vedova “doesn’t guarantee” support for a PD-M5S government.

In the end anything continues to be possible, and attempting a prediction before this Tuesday’s deadline continues to be pointless. As always, any semblance of ideology continues to be fluid in Italian politics, with opportunism remaining the only point of stability: Lega wants power, the PD wants to stop Lega, FI wants to feel like a big boy again, and M5S just wants to stay alive.