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Salvini Bet on His Popularity. He Lost – For Now

Salvini has the polling numbers and the popularity, but lacks the votes to bring down the government in a no-confidence vote. Can he get his way after all?

Following intense public feuding with coalition partner 5-Star Movement, Deputy Prime Minister and League party leader Matteo Salvini called for snap elections on August 5th, hoping to see elections occur as early as October – more than three years before the end of term. Triggering a government crisis, Salvini declared the current ruling coalition unworkable and accused his critics of scheming to keep him from power.

Writing on Facebook, Salvini said, “Under-the-table stitch-ups, palace intrigues, technocrat or caretaker administrations will not stop Italians who want a strong government.”

His decision threw Italy’s economy, the eurozone’s third largest with the second highest public debt in the bloc, deep into political uncertainty, leading to a subsequent sell-off in Italian bonds and shares when the country can least afford it – just before 2020 budget negotiations.

But his decision is having unintended consequences, as both opposition and coalition parties joined together to prevent the no-confidence vote. Co-ruling anti-establishment 5-Star Movement leader, and Co-Deputy-Prime-Minister, Luigi Di Maio called Salvini’s triggering of this government crisis “foolish and dangerous”.

The Former Democratic Party (PD) leader and former premier Matteo Renzi, who is still influential in the party, said that going back to the polls just when the government is due to start preparations for the 2020 budget would be “crazy”. Instead, he recommended an interim or caretaker government, whose first task would be to rustle up approximately 23 billion euros to dodge a rise in sales tax which is due to kick-in come January.

Yet other senior Democratic party members, such as former culture minister Dario Franceschini, wished for a more lasting alliance with 5-Star Movement that would hold for the entire rest of the term, not merely a few months. The current PD party leader, Nicola Zingaretti, told state TV that he did not think Renzi’s interim government proposal would work. “We are all aware of the danger Salvini represents, but I doubt that a government fixing the public finances Salvini messed up would be the solution”, he said.

Salvini dismissed the proposal, saying, “Renzi returning to government thanks to the 5-Star Movement? That’s a betrayal of the Italian people, that’s shameful.” But Di Maio, while saying he would “not sit down with Renzi”, did not rule out a partnership with the ruling wing of the party led by Nicola Zingaretti.

And although Salvini has since then adopted a more conciliatory tone, saying he could in fact continue to govern with M5S, on Sunday the 5-Star Movement said that Salvini was no longer a credible partner, seemingly discarding any possibility of keeping the ruling coalition in place.

Salvini has placed his hopes in the polls, showing him at 38 percent popularity – twice as much support as co-ruling party 5-Star Movement, despite the latter having more parliamentary seats.  His confidence was bolstered following the turnout of the European Parliament elections on 26th May: the League won twice as many seats in the European parliament as the 5-Star Movement.

The 5-Star Movement’s voter base, on the other hand, has suffered due to its partnership with the League, having halved its voter support since the two parties joined forces in June last year.

In the light of the summer recess, Salvini has been campaigning on the Italian beaches to boost his “man of the people” image, and has summoned all the League lawmakers back to Rome.

“What is more beautiful, more democratic, more dignified than to give the choice back to the people”, Mr Salvini reiterated to the Senate in a speech before Tuesday’s vote. Ultimately, the opposition and his coalition partner voted together against the no confidence motion. Instead, parliament members agreed to carry out the vote on August 20th – a move that was subsequently backed by the Italian senate.

If the vote succeeds, current premier Guiseppe Conte must resign.

At a press conference on Tuesday of last week, Renzi said that Salvini “had discovered he is in the minority”. “It is clear that his reputation as an invincible man is sinking…Salvini must resign and return to his mojito”, he added, referencing Salvini’s habitual campaigning on the beach.

Renzi also backs the 5-Star Movement’s call for new legislation to reduce the number of lawmakers in government, reducing the current 630 members of the lower house and 315 senators by more than half, to a combined total of 345 – before new elections are held. The draft of the bill is currently facing a final vote next month, but this measure would also have to follow a lengthy constitutional procedure that would make new elections unlikely for another year. If passed, it would free up about 50 million euros to be used on projects like schools, roads, and hospitals.

Referencing this proposed legislation Di Maio said that “Salvini is at a dead end, if he wants to reduce the number of lawmakers, he can’t vote no-confidence in Conte.”

Prime Minister Conte has also since accused Salvini of disloyalty and being obsessed with blocking immigration, saying he only aimed to exploit the issue for electoral gain rather than seeking solutions with Italy’s partners. “I understand your faithful and obsessive concentration on addressing the issue of immigration by reducing it to the formula of ‘closed ports’. You are a political leader and you are legitimately intent on constantly increasing your support…” he wrote.


Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte claims Salvini has been obsessed with blocking immigration, dismissing solutions to the issue. Copyright: Alexandros Michailidis / shutterstock.com

Salvini shot back at a news conference, saying “yes, I am guilty of having an obsession with the safety of Italian citizens, and an obsession with fighting human traffickers and NGOs who are accomplices to human traffickers. Sixty million Italians pay my salary for this obsession.”

There’s even unrest in Salvini’s own party: League Cabinet Undersecretary Giancarlo Giorgetti, Salvini’s closest aide, acknowledged in an interview in La Republica daily that the party could now end up in opposition. “We could have held on to our government posts and now we risk looking stupid, but we posed a political issue”, Giorgetti said.

In response, Salvini told Rtl 102.5 radio after Tuesday’s vote, “lots of people are asking me to make sure there are no power games, no technocrat governments (…) the best way, the most democratic, transparent, direct one, is to have elections. We are doing everything possible so that the Italian people can vote”.

I say no to strange governments”, he added, likely referencing possible alternate majority coalitions. “The sooner we vote, the better”.

But even if Salvini gets his way, only President Sergio Mattarella has the power to dissolve parliament – which he may be unwilling to do ahead of September due to 2020 budget preparations, which need to be in front of both parliament and the European Commission in October. Instead, he may push for a new government to be formed out of the existing legislature and avoid elections altogether.

There remains a lot of distance between the 5-Star Movement and PD parties, but the dovetailing of rhetoric and shared desire to defeat Salvini does indicate a warming between them and a potential political unity after the no-confidence vote. Such a union would be difficult.

Giovanni Orsina, professor of political science at Luiss University, noted that Tuesday’s vote “Was an anti-Salvini vote that shows there is a majority that wants to find an alternative majority. So there could be a majority for a government in theory, but the Democratic party are very divided on early elections. Renzi wants to return to a central role in politics and so is styling himself as the anti-Salvini. But Zingaretti would prefer to return to a vote to reorganise the party in his favour.”

What seems apparent, nonetheless, it that the result of tomorrow’s vote will be key in defining the fate of Italy’s ruling government, and in determining whether snap-elections are in store or, even perhaps, a new coalition government between Salvini’s rivals is on the cards – a move, that if successful, could ultimately leave the League’s leader out in the cold.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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