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Here’s What You Should Know About Italy’s Umpteenth Government Crisis

Why did the "Government of Change" suddenly collapse? Why did Mr. Salvini call for new elections? What happens next?

Luigi di Maio, Vice PM and chief of Five Stars Movement (left); Giuseppe Conte, Prime Minister (center); Matteo Salvini, Vice Prime Minister and chief of the League (right), January 17, 2019 (Palazzo Chigi).

The truth is that Matteo Salvini’s League and the Five Stars Movement have always been not only very different from each other, but also adversaries till the political agreement that led to the "Government of Change" was signed. It is no coincidence that, for a long time even after the March 2018 elections, they never dared to define themselves as “allies”: They were only temporary “friends,” according to Mr. Salvini, “co-signatories of the contract of government,” according to Mr. Di Maio, the other Vice Prime Minister and chief of the anti-establishment movement.

Fourteen months have passed since the Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte labeled his newly established government, formed by the populist Five Stars Movement and the far-right League Party, as “the Government of Change”. A few days ago, the Interior Minister and Vice Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, chief of the League party, announced his intention to break the coalition with his anti-establishment allies and called for new elections.

After two crucial meetings with his Vice Prime Minister, Mr. Conte identified Mr. Salvini’s desire to capitalize on the wide electoral consensus he had gained in the May 26 European elections—in which 34% of the Italian voters had supported his anti-immigration stances—as the political crisis’ main driving force. Mr. Conte also made clear that the institutional deadlock would be formalized and managed strictly by the Italian Parliament, which in the following days will decide the Government’s future in a no-confidence vote.

How and why did the Italian Government suddenly collapse in the middle of the summer?

First of all, that crisis did not happen “suddenly” or come totally unexpectedly. The Interior Minister justified his position by labeling the Five Stars Movement as “the No Party”, and accusing it of preventing the Government from working effectively. Salvini was referring to FSM’s vote against the construction of a high-speed rail link between Turin, in Italy, and Lyons, in France, a 30-year-old controversial project known as “TAV”. “Those who vote ‘no’ are putting the government at risk”, he warned. 

However, the truth is that Matteo Salvini’s League and the Five Stars Movement have always been not only very different from each other, but also adversaries till the political agreement that led to the “Government of Change” was signed. It is no coincidence that, for a long time even after the March 2018 elections, they never dared to define themselves as “allies”: They were only temporary “friends,” according to Mr. Salvini, “co-signatories of the contract of government,” according to Mr. Di Maio, the other Vice Prime Minister and chief of the anti-establishment movement.

PM Giuseppe Conte at the August 8 press conference (Palazzo Chigi).

What the two political forces have always had in common is their populist and anti-establishment attitude, but they originally advocated for antithetical political views. Before Salvini, the League Party called for the independence of “Padania”, the Northern part of Italy that is bathed by the Po river. And even though Mr. Salvini succeeded in gaining electoral consensus in the South of the country as well, his party still demands wider financial autonomy for some Northern regions. On the other hand, the Five Stars Movement won the March 2018 elections, especially thanks to the Southern voters, who were attracted by the promise of the introduction of a basic income for the unemployed.

While on immigration the two parties recently tend to resemble each other’s platform, their relationship with the South isn’t their only difference. Mr. Di Maio’s movement has always focused on the value of “honesty” in politics, and, for a long time, took justicialist stances against representatives of other Parties—including the League—who didn’t resign from the Parliament while being investigated by the Italian Judiciary. Although FSM’s positions have recently softened, only a few months ago the two parties collided over the case of a League Under Secretary, Armando Siri, under investigation for corruption, and eventually removed from the Government by PM Conte. The League and the Five Stars Movement also differ in their approach to environmentalism, which has always been an important issue for Beppe Grillo’s movement, while being considered a minor point by Salvini’s party.

In this context, it is worth mentioning the ineffective and weak opposition made by the Democratic Party, which hasn’t recovered yet from the deep identity crisis highlighted by the former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s resignation in December 2016. Mr. Renzi, who after the March 2018 elections had opposed an agreement between his party and the FSM, is now calling for an “institutional government” that would encompass Di Maio’s movement in order to secure the Italian public finances. However, the Democratic Party is splitting over his proposal, that didn’t receive support from the party’s Secretary, Nicola Zingaretti. As the Italian left is so politically divided, the chief of the League party is seeking the support of the center-right party Forza Italia, founded by Silvio Berlusconi, and the far-right party, Fratelli d’Italia.

As Mr. Salvini calls for “full power”, an unsettling expression used by Mussolini in 1919, Italy is on the verge of the umpteenth institutional and political crisis of its history. Since 1948, 65 governments have followed one another, with an average duration of 1.1 year. At least from this perspective, the “Government of Change” doesn’t seem all that different from the others.

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