Nothing New Marches On in a ‘De-Leagued’ Italy

And so a new government has been formed in Italy – more out of necessity than choice – dictated by the opportunity Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, handed the Five-Star Movement (M5S) to switch alliances and isolate Salvini and his dreams of dominance.

It was precisely the leader of the League that created a crisis for a government based on a contract uniting it and M5S, abruptly breaking off their relationship. To understand this turn we need to go back a bit to see how things got to this point.

In the last political elections, held in March 2018, the customary contest between the centre right and centre left was eliminated due to M5S’s large vote share. This ‘post-ideological’ political actor was in a position to occupy the top position as the party with the most votes, marking the end of bipolarism in Italy, something which had already occurred in other European countries, with the result that it was handed the responsibility of forming a government. Perhaps the most positive thing to come out of this new situation was that parliament was given back its central role in the political landscape, which is what the Constitution originally intended. After long and acrobatic consultations a solution was found through a contract that united M5S and the League.

The basis for the contract was the ‘anti-establishment’ position that both political forces projected before the last elections – elections that witnessed M5S’s feat of garnering 32% of votes and in which, on the other side, the League too, having abandoned its regional ‘Northern’ outlook and reconfiguring itself as a national party, scored 17% of votes, winning enough senators and deputies to free itself from the classic right-wing line-up with its old allies – Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia – rupturing a partnership at the national level that, however, remained very solid in local administrations.

Even with double the votes and deputies of the League, M5S immediately began living in the shadow of the decisions and attention-getting manoeuvres of the new League and its Minister of the Interior, Matteo Salvini. Overwhelming media attention and the ferocious brashness of the League’s minister in dealing with the question of immigrants led to an increased approval for the League, which tipped above 30% in terms of voting preferences. However, on the issue of immigrants the first attack on forms of integration and hospitality had already been led by the Partito Democratico (PD) with Marco Minniti, the Minister of the Interior in the Gentiloni government, enacting policies of refoulement that were only reinforced by the League-M5S government. The political leader of M5S, Luigi di Maio, was himself the first to accuse the NGOs that rescued people of being sea taxis for the immigrant traffickers. Thus on this issue there is much on which the centre right and centre left agree. Having recourse to a war against the most disadvantaged has provided fertile soil for the growth of an authoritarian response, shifting attention, and the finding of solutions, away from social problems and questions of justice, which cannot be resolved by the economic policies carried out so far. There is no question but that this has fed a climate of intolerance benefitting the leader of the League.

And it was precisely his approval in opinion polls that most probably spurred him to interrupt the government relationship and announce a vote of no-confidence at the beginning of August in an attempt to trigger new elections as quickly as possible – even asking for ‘full powers’ to be able to govern without the vetoes he claimed he had to tolerate in the Council of Ministers.

This discontent also derives from the position taken by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte at the European level towards other leaders and the European Commission in his capacity as interlocutor and mediator in determining the budget law and economic structure of the country.

And finally, but no less important, was the role he played in getting M5S’s MEPs in the European Parliament to vote for Ursula von der Leyen as President of the European Commission.

The projected budget law is, in my opinion, the decisive factor for the collapse of the first Conte government.

The last straw was, on the one hand, the desire to break with the constraints the League intended to enforce and, on the other, an alliance of manoeuvre and mediation put into play by the Prime Minister and M5S.

However, Salvini’s manoeuvre to bring down the government and trigger new elections in order to confirm his own success, even if in coalition with Forza Italia and Fratelli d’Italia, has been stopped in parliament.

The radical left was the first to ask that the very same political forces responsible for the exponential growth of the most extremist right wing put into play every possible parliamentary manoeuvre to avoid new elections and impede the affirmation of Salvini’s project.

Today we can say that the real political turning point is the end of a system that for thirty years now has seen governability tied to the majority character of political parties – which contradicts the value the Constitution puts on debate and the decision-making role of parliament.

Precisely for this reason the radical left – that is, the ensemble of political forces positioned to the left of the Partito Democratico – is emphatically requesting a return to a proportional electoral law, which –  in the face of a possible victory for the right that under the current electoral law would get two-thirds of seats in parliament – has now become a theme of public discussion again.

There was at first an attempt by the PD to have recourse to early elections, motivated by the wish of its internal factions to settle accounts with each other. Today the PD’s parliamentary groups mainly relate to Matteo Renzi’s camp, who was party secretary at the time of the 4 March 2018 elections; and the first decision made by the new secretary Nicola Zingaretti, when the government crisis burst into the open, was to go into elections in order to have people close to him in parliament.

But under popular pressure and pressure from the social forces ranging from the trade unions to the employers association, as well as pressure from ‘Europe’, Zingaretti decided to enter consultations with M5S to create a government that was to signal, on the one hand, a brake on the hopes of the right for early elections and, on the other, the defining of different social and economic policies agreeable to the European institutions. One of the PD’s founding fathers, Romano Prodi, explicitly called this ‘Ursula’s government’.

The confrontation regarding the construction of the new government, which took place on 3 September, taking close account of the online vote by M5S members, with almost 80% approving the agreement with the PD, is also based on a programme shaped by the political forces present in parliament, with the support, beyond the PD and M5S, of the Liberi e Uguali left, which has a number of senators indispensable for attaining a parliamentary majority.

At the moment, even though it has been possible to achieve the first objective of preventing new elections very soon, it is uncertain whether it will be possible to accomplish a turning point in social and economic policies.

The task entrusted to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of forming the new government opens up a space that we hope will stay open, at least long enough for strengthening an alternative capable of proposing a left exit and supporting the position that the left has advocated in the European Parliament with its vote against the election of Ursula von der Leyen and the ferociously liberalist policies that have provoked the discontent on which the right feeds.

What we are now facing is thus the defining of a ‘European’ government, which has been pushed by all the elites in order to outvote the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing forces, something which we can by no means regret; nevertheless, at the same time we need to build a left opposition that does not hand over to the right the terrain of social justice and alternatives to liberalist policies – policies which still seem to be the basis on which the new executive  is being built.