Italy's rightist deputy PM Salvini may have blown it
Polls showing support for his Lega party doubled since the election that brought him to national power 14 months before.
In the lead-up to Italy's traditional August holiday, Matteo Salvini seemed to be everywhere, posing for selfies with supporters at the seaside and speaking to crowds at piazzas large and small. As holidaymakers began enjoying their month-long break, the vice-premier was also luxuriating - in his own popularity.
Polls showing support for his Lega party doubled since the election that brought him to national power 14 months before. Starting as the leader of a right-wing regional party in 2013, Salvini had risen to become the most popular politician in the country, no small feat in a milieu known for its sharp elbows and shifting alliances.
Salvini's nationalist, anti-immigration and Eurosceptic message seemed to be resonating with an Italian electorate weary of the flat-lined economy and a quality of life in decline since the great recession of 2008. Increasingly emboldened, Salvini continued to fire salvos at opponents both within and outside Italy. He also chafed at the unorthodox and uneasy governing coalition formed between the Lega and the 5-Star Movement (M5S) following elections in 2018.
But in his scattershot criticism and demands, he could have shot himself in the foot. On August 9, he called for a no confidence vote in parliament and new elections. If the polls were right, a new election would put the Lega in the majority with him at the helm as prime minister.
As the sultry days of August continue, it hasn't quite worked out that way. Instead of acquiescing, a range of powers pushed back. Former partner M5S vowed they would not work with him again and Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned in a scathing speech criticising Salvini before the full parliament.
Massimo Franco, a journalist at the Corriere della Sera newspaper, notes that Conte listed a series of failures by Salvini, who also serves as interior minister.
"Premier Conte accused Salvini of exposing Italy to financial speculation, causing a crisis in the middle of summer only for his own electoral advantage," says Franco. "He highlighted Salvini's absence from parliament when the time came to talk about Lega-Russia connections, the parallel consultations with ministry of interior partners in society, his overstepping into the briefs of other ministers, the sabotage of negotiations with the European Commission - all subordinated to his aims on the Palazzo Chigi (prime minister's office) through an electoral blitz."
The situation remains in flux, but Salvini could have done more damage to himself than a flesh wound. He could have blown the door wide open for the return of the Democratic Party (PD). It is now in negotiations with the M5S to form a new government coalition that would leave Salvini out of power entirely and his Lega in minority opposition.
Though polls say its support has dropped since the election in 2018, the M5S is the still largest single bloc in parliament and will remain so without a return to the ballot box. It is now in negotiations with its former bête noire, the PD, to form a coalition with a razor-thin majority.
As with the 2018 election that gave no clear mandate to any party, the next move is in the hands of President Sergio Mattarella, who in his role as elder statesman under the Italian constitution wields considerable power. He has certainly risen to his role above politics as he tries to guide negotiations in the best interests of the country. Following the 2018 election, he virtually handpicked Conte as prime minister and little-known professor Giovanni Tria for the important position of economy minister. Observers within and outside Italy say both have risen to the challenge, surprising many.
It is now up to Mattarella to agree to fresh elections or help in the formation of a new governing coalition comprising existing parties. He has given them until August 27 to reach a consensus. With national and EU budgets looming, there is little time for extended disputation.
The state of play over the weekend was continued negotiations between the M5S and PD, with both sides putting forward core policies they say are non-negotiable. From the MS5 those include retention of Conte as prime minister and implementation of their legislation to significantly reduce the number of parliamentary members.
The PD, for its part, wants to repeal the strict immigration laws pushed by Salvini already in force as well as get a formal vow that Italy will support the EU and have a budget that meets conventional guidelines.
Flavio Tosi is the former mayor of Verona and a former member of the Lega party himself. Now vociferously opposed to Salvini, he is reveling in developments.
"Here it is, Salvini in a class by Giuseppe Conte who explained to him the meaning of democratic institutions and in front of the country nailed him to his responsibilities, calling him unfair, an opportunist, an absentee and completely ignorant of constitutional ABCs." And the man who triggered the August crisis? After sitting through the brutal lecture from former law professor Conte, a seemingly chastened Salvini now says he is willing to still work with the M5S. Some say it is a bit too late.
Mariella Radaelli and Jon Van Housen are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com