For months, we’ve suggested Italy’s fractious populist coalition goverment was destined to splinter.
The writing is on the wall. Matteo Salvini, whose ambitions go far beyond being co-deputy-prime minister, will ultimately dispatch with Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio in an effort to consolidate power, we’ve argued at various intervals.
Italy is in a recession and a worsening economy threatens to imperil the country’s already tenuous fiscal position, thereby risking another clash with Brussels.
Meanwhile, with EU elections right around the corner, Salvini appears to have designs on projecting power and establishing himself as Europe’s populist torchbearer at a time when right-wing populism still has quite a bit of momentum in western democracies. There appears to be no room in this equation for Di Maio.
The last time we wrote on this was April 4 (see the linked post above) and one commenter suggested we were spreading “fake news”. Fast forward a couple of weeks to Friday and Di Maio posted a video on Facebook accusing League of trying to bring down the government.
“Today as well the League threatens to make the government fall”, he said, on the way to suggesting that League is in contact with Silvio Berlusconi as part of a nascent bid to form a new government.
Salvini was having none of it. “The League wants to govern well and for a long time in the interests of Italians, the government crisis is only in Di Maio’s head”, he said, through a spokeswoman. Perhaps something was lost in translation there, but do note that Matteo says “the League wants to govern… for a long time”. He doesn’t say anything about Five Star being along for the ride.
If you ask League’s Edoardo Rixi – he’s deputy minister in the Infrastructure Ministry – folks are “sick” of Di Maio. “Salvini isn’t the only one who’s sick and tired of Five Star”, Rixi insisted, during an interview with La Repubblica published Friday. “We’re all sick and tired [and] Five Star is doing all it can to make us vote in June.”
There’s nothing subtle about the castigation of Five Star in those comments, but there is some subtlety in how Rixi paints a snap election as a “gun-to-our-heads” type of event that Di Maio is making inevitable. You’d be forgiven for thinking that’s actually the outcome League wants. Rixi went on to say that getting rid of Five Star wouldn’t be easy, in any case. To wit, from the same interview:
We may end up with the same majority as today [after an election]. It’s not easy. But absurd things are happening.
What kind of “absurd things are happening”, you ask? Well, Salvini’s economic adviser, Armando Siri (who’s also undersecretary at the Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry), is engaged in some public corruption, allegedly. Specifically, prosecutors say he pocketed roughly €30,000 in bribes in the course of trying to curry favor with renewable energy businesses. He denies the allegations.
Meanwhile, Five Star’s Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Rome, has been bullying garbage collectors. There’s a lengthy story on this in L’Espresso, but the gist of it appears to be captured in the headline: “Virginia Raggi: ‘Change the budget’. But the manager says no and is fired”. God bless Google translate for that amusingly blunt take.
Di Maio wants Siri gone and Salvini wants the same for Raggi – or that’s the Cliffs Notes version. And that’s really all you need, because the overarching point is that this latest spat quite clearly suggests that one way or another, this untenable situation will go the way of all untenable situations – it will come to a boiling point which in this case probably means new elections.
As Bloomberg wrote in a good piece earlier this month, Salvini is keen on not moving too quickly to capitalize on his popularity and burgeoning superstar status. To wit:
In private… he is cautious and strategic, says one junior minister who’s worked alongside Salvini for some 20 years. A snap election might be tempting for the party, but Salvini is playing the long game.
He is already in the box seat in the government and voters have so far blamed Five Star’s Luigi di Maio for most things that go wrong. The League needs more time to build up support in the south and if it ditched Five Star now, it might end up reliant on former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for a majority. Salvini really wants to avoid winding up associated with such an establishment figure.
In a way, that’s even more foreboding. Salvini appears to be waiting on the moment when his support is broad enough to make a play for what, at the risk of lapsing into bombast, will one way or another amount to the installation of rule by strongman. Just read these additional excerpts from the linked Bloomberg piece:
It’s not so much Salvini’s electoral prospects that make the EU establishment nervous – his nationalist alliance is projected to win less than a tenth of the seats in the next parliament. What sets him apart is his political chops.
Since he burst onto the scene a year ago, Salvini has hijacked an EU summit he didn’t even attend, faced off with the European Commission on the budget and consistently got under the skin of French President Emmanuel Macron. And whatever he does, his popularity in Italy continues to climb.
Many of those who now occupy senior party positions have been scrapping and pulling stunts for 20 years or more alongside the man they call ‘The Captain.’
The turnaround in the party’s fortunes means no one in the League challenges Salvini.
“When Salvini took over, we were a dying party. So whatever he says is fine by us,” said Riccardo Molinari, who heads League lawmakers in the lower house.
If that sounds like a recipe for a nightmarish descent into ultra-nationalism, that’s because it is. Salvini is dangerous, and Europe pretty clear knows it.
Di Maio and Five Star are effectively serving at his convenience, allowing Salvini to preside over a placeholder government while he builds enough support to form another coalition that would ultimately morph into a personality cult.
Meanwhile, Salvini’s anti-immigrant crusade continues. Renewed fighting in Libya provides the perfect excuse to ratchet up the fearmongering and that’s precisely what he’s done. Earlier this week, the military accused him of “unprecedented interference” in closing off Italy’s ports. Specifically, the military and defense ministry were alarmed at a directive they claimed “crossed a red line” and constituted “improper pressure”. Subsequent reporting appeared to refute that.
Some claim the turmoil surrounding Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli could end up freeing hundreds of imprisoned ISIS militants who would then find their way to Europe. Salvini calls this a “certainty”.
“Islamic terrorist infiltration is no longer a risk, it has become a certainty. This is why I must reiterate that no docking will be allowed on Italian shores”, he told Rai Radio this week.
“The port is assigned by the interior minister, whether you like it or not”, he added.