Salvini's self-sabotage

ITASalviniCoupROME – Until a few days ago, it seemed Matteo Salvini could not make a wrong move. Now, after a bold but unsuccessful bid for power, Salvini and the anti-migrant, nationalist political party he leads could find themselves in Italy’s political wilderness for months or years.

On Thursday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte a mandate to create a new government – this time without the League, the party Salvini heads.

For most of his time in the public eye, the 46-year-old Salvini had been something of a miracle worker for the League, the party he took over on the brink of irrelevance six years ago.

In the last national vote before Salvini became head of the League, in 2013, the party earned a mere 4 percent of the vote. But under Salvini, the League rode a wave of nationalist sentiment to increase its share of the electorate to 6 percent in 2014, 17 percent last year, and 34 percent in voting for European Parliament in June.

The party also won major legislative victories over its coalition partner, the populist Five-Star Movement. Heading into the August break, the party’s approval levels approached the 40-percent threshold, as Salvini took his politicking to the country’s beaches, where he held rallies and posed for shirtless selfies with supporters.

Soon after, everything starting going wrong.

Looking to rid the League of its uneasy 15-month partnership with the Five-Star Movement, Salvini tried to force snap elections, bargaining that if he could top 40 percent he could join forces with one or two second-tier parties and form a coalition with him as prime minister. The plan backfired.

“It must have seemed to Salvini that he had momentum, and that moment was ripe to take power in his hands,” said Franco Pavoncello, a political scientist and president of Rome’s John Cabot University. “So he created a big mess, bringing down the government in August when nobody wants to think about politics and trying to force elections in the fall, something that hasn’t happened in Italy in a hundred years.”

Immediately after the government’s Aug. 20 collapse, Mattarella began looking for alternatives to sending Italians to the polls in October or November. Elections would have changed the balance of power in the country in the middle of always-contentious negotiations for the following year’s budget plan. What emerged from Mattarella’s consultations was another uneasy alliance, this time between the Five-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party – long-time rivals.

“Will the Faustian pact work?” asked Lorenzo Codogno, founder and chief economist of LC Macro Investors Ltd. and a visiting professor at the London School of Economics. “The glue for this awkward government will be the desire to prevent Salvini’s League from taking power. Both parties know that if the government fails, that would be a tremendous gift to Salvini, who could sweep back into power.”

Engineering the collapse of the government seems to have cost Salvini and the League, at least temporarily. Polls carried out since the government’s collapse show support for the League eroding from a high of nearly 40 percent to just over 30 percent. Some pollsters predict the numbers could sink still further.

Where does that leave Salvini? The next elections are scheduled for 2023, though they could come sooner if the “Faustian pact” between the Five-Star Movement and the Democratic Party collapses. But as long as those two parties remain in power, it will leave Salvini on the outside looking in.

“Salvini has been hurt by a self-inflicted wound,” Pavoncello said. “But he is not dead, he is not out of the game. If he maintains 30 percent of the electorate, that is a very big number in a fractured political system like Italy’s. It’s enough to let him become a very loud, very consistent, very problematic critic of this new government while hoping it will fall sooner rather than later.”

Analysts noted that waiting for a government to founder is not an unexpected strategy in Italy, which has had 69 governments in the 74 years since the end of World War II.

According to Alessandro Franzi, co-author of “Matteo Salvini: Italy, Europe, and the New Right,” being the head of the largest opposition party could play to Salvini’s strengths more than being in power.

“Salvini has held various party jobs starting in 1993 but up until June of last year, when he became minister of the interior and deputy prime minister, he never held a government post,” Franzi said. “His rise was as a critic, not as a policymaker. I think he will fall back into that role with a very specific target: demolishing the alliance between the Five-Star Movement and the Democratic Party and trying to make people forget he was the one who made that alliance necessary.”

Photo: The League leader Matteo Salvini took his politicking to the country’s beaches, where he held rallies and posed for shirtless selfies with supporters.
Credit: Courtesy of Matteo Salvini's official Twitter account (08/30/19)

Story/photo published date: 08/29/19
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