Matteo Salvini’s bid for power saw him lose his place in government last month, but the head of the populist League thrives in opposition. It currently seems that the former interior minister has bad news piling up on him. Things have gone from bad to worse since he brought down his own government in an attempt to force new elections.
It became immediately clear that the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, was not willing to facilitate Salvini’s call for new elections. Instead, he encouraged coalition talks between unlikely allies – the Five Star Movement, which had been in government with the League and their historic foes – the Democratic Party. All went unexpectedly smoothly and the new government is up and running, having secured the confidence of parliament.
The Democratic Party has allowed Giuseppe Conte, who led the previous government, to stay on as Prime Minister. This is a huge victory for him and for Five Star, but it came with concessions. The Democrats took control of many important ministries, including the economy portfolio. That means that a pro-European Union party is now in charge.
Five Star and the Democratic Party have shown an unexpected propensity for compromise so far, but have no doubt – there will be plenty of clashes ahead. There is a reasonable chance that the new governing majority will find agreement in areas such as the welfare considerations, increasing investment in the south as well as in education, but it may come at the expense of alienating voters in the north.
Headlines across Italy declared that Salvini’s era had come to an end. Deprived of his job as interior minister, he will no longer be able to use his former position of power to voice his stance on numerous hot topics, the most volatile of which is immigration. Those who follow Italian politics realize that such claims are very premature.
There is no doubt that Salvini miscalculated his power base and it will take some time for both he and the League to recover. It is also important to realize that Salvini has many cards up his sleeve, both in terms of the strength of the organization backing him (well rooted in the north and running a very efficient social media operation) and the issues he can campaign for in the near future.
A prime example of this lies in the Five Star Movements success in the south of Italy. This in itself is directly at odds with garnering votes in the north, the stronghold of the League. While there is a pronounced desire for those in the north to use taxes to improve public services locally, introducing reforms that deprive the south of resources would make it impossible to provide acceptable services in the poorest regions. In this sense, not being in government is convenient for the League, since there was no way to deliver what their northern constituencies would want while sharing power with Five Star. Additionally, any compromise would have looked like a failure.
The same can be said of the country’s next budget. Reconciling the League’s promise to cut taxes with the Five Star’s desire to increase welfare would have meant either cutting taxes by too small an amount or to too few people. Now the League will not need to compromise and will not be viewed as amending the budget to meet the objections of the EU Commission, as it had to do last year.
Then there is the issue of migration. Salvini’s approach of closing the ports to ships arriving from Africa has large support among the Italian electorate, including Five Star voters. There can be no doubt that the League will relentlessly focus on the supposed failures of the new administration on this issue.
Salvini has a clear message and has taken ownership on several key topics including low taxation, regionalism, law and order, as well as immigration. He can also rely on a well-established party and a very efficient media operation. Much like anyone else, he can be beaten and his aura as a winner has taken a heavy blow. But those now rushing to write his political obituary should take a good look at the reasons for the League’s success throughout the years, as well as the party’s presence on the ground and its ability to run effective campaigns. They will not see this party or its leader disappear any time soon.
Now, with former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi leaving the Five Star party and taking his support to “fight against Salvini,” I sit and seriously ask myself if I am watching a Shakespearian comedy or tragedy.