After the clear triumph by Luigi Di Maio’s populist 5-Star Movement and the far-right Northern League of Matteo Salvini during the Italian parliamentary elections, yesterday the first statements of Italy’s top political top leaders did nothing to help calm the situation and lead the way towards forming a stable majority government.
Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister and leader of the vanquished Democratic Party (PD), was clear in his message that the PD will not sign any agreement with what he called “extremists”, saying the “Democratic Party will remain in the opposition”. Much to the surprise of most political experts, Renzi then unexpectedly postponed his resignation, saying he would continue to oversee party matters and prevent a discussion about forming a coalition with either 5-Star or the Northern League.
Earlier in the evening, a triumphant Salvini confirmed that he will look to form a majority centre-right alliance, and insisted that no German-style “grand coalition” of diametrically opposed parties would govern Italy.
The 5-Star Movement is highly unlikely to find any common ground with Salvini and the Northern League, particularly considering the fact that di Maio already presented his list of potential cabinet ministers before the elections ever took place and vowed to only enter into a partnership with a junior member that aligns with 5-Star’s party platform.
If Renzi, Salvini, and Di Maio stick to the hardline stances on refusing to work together to form a majority government, the only possible outcome is a new round of elections.
Despite a rigid post-election mood, which the winners are using to showcase their victory and prove to their supporters that “change has finally come”, most Italy watchers are aware that the country’s complex political culture has a long and storied history of finding a way to force unthinkable compromises from its myriad of politicians.
Following the accepted legal procedures, hundreds of Italian MP’s changed their party affiliation until a and majority government could be formed – a phenomenon unique to Italy and incomparable to other European democracies like Germany, France, or the UK.
There were 526 “turncoats” in the Chamber and Senate in September 2017, all of whom acted as kingmakers in the selection of the new government. Having said it’s far too early to calculate how potential “traitors” will emerge when the government begins the process of negotiating a new government on March 23. Party discipline is almost non-existent in these situations as the horse trading that is involved can regularly lead to MPs changing their affiliation multiple times during the negotiations – irrespective of their ideology of platform.
The norm in Italian politics is for six or seven parties to be admitted to the parliament the day after the election, only to find an endless constellation of mini parties dictating self-serving agendas to weakened governments.
To gain some insight into who might get the upper hand over the next few weeks, the political groups fearing to go for a second electoral turn.
The badly mauled PD will have to fight for its life not to be destroyed at the next elections, particularly as it is going through a messy internal conflict over the direction and leadership of the party. While Renzi’s approval rating is abysmal, it’s impossible to think anyone else taking the helm of the PD, particularly anyone who could end the intraparty squabbles and right the ship for the beleaguered centrists.
Berlusconi in his unexpected and highly unplanned new role as the junior partner in the right-wing Forza Italia/Northern League coalition knows that with a second vote he risks losing even more ground to Salvini – who is obviously seen by the electorate as being in the vanguard of populist far-right politics in Italy.
Both Di Maio and Salvini are conscious of the fact that voters have now handed them a powerful mandate to govern as outsiders and potential bomb throwers against the “business as usual” system that the electorate was rebelling against. Both still have to deliver a result, however, with Di Maio coming under the most pressure to stick to his campaign pledges as he does not have the legacy of time in the way Salvini can wait to see if the Northern League will benefit from a potential alliance outside of the current centre-right coalition.
Di Maio will try to attract MP’s from a Democratic Party reeling in its own missteps by presenting himself as their last best hope against the far-right. He very well could, however, try and poach several defectors from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, many of who could be open to the idea of being a turncoat after Forza performed well below the pre-election forecasts.
For his part, Salvini failed to specify which potential outside MP’s would break with their own parties and support his attempts to form a government, but his path to the premiership is far closer than Di Maio’s as he is within easy striking range of getting enough outside supporters to catapult to the position of Italian head of state
There’s an outside chance that Salvini might push for new elections if he fails to secure a centre-right government might push for a second round, he has no need to follow bizarre or unnatural alliances. For the moment, he has time on his hands to work towards the goal of finding the right support.
In Italian politics, time is everything.