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© Alberto Pizzoli, AFP | Allies, but for how long? Silvio Berlusconi (left) has urged the League's Matteo Salvini (right) not to quit their centre-right alliance and join forces with the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-03-29

With his legacy of sleaze, cronyism and corruption, former tycoon PM Silvio Berlusconi has emerged as one of several hurdles to the formation of a governing coalition between his League allies and the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement.

He loves me. He loves me not. The wooing and posturing that has followed Italy’s inconclusive election reads like a daisy oracle – a shifting game of courtship in which the lead roles blow hot and cold one day to the next, so as to keep their suitors both keen and wary.

Calling the steps are the two nominal winners of the March 4 election. One is the Five-Star Movement, which emerged as Italy’s largest single party with a whopping 32 percent of the vote. The other is the anti-immigrant League, which supplanted Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as the dominant force in the largest coalition of parties.

Their youthful leaders have both claimed the right to form a government, but neither Five-Star’s Luigi Di Maio, 31, nor the League’s Matteo Salvini, 45, commands a majority in parliament.

“Both are behaving like they won the election,” says Amedeo La Mattina of Italy’s La Stampa newspaper. “But the fact is neither camp can rule without a partner.”

An unexpected idyll

Of all the unnatural alliances that have been mooted to find a way out of the deadlock, a tie-up between the two has emerged as the likeliest option – not least because it would be seen as an alliance between winners, with all the momentum and legitimacy this entails.

Luigi Di Maio, 31, celebrates with supporters after his Five-Star Movement became Italy's biggest party in the March 4 election. © Carlo Hermann, AFP

In a key indicator of the new balance of power, Five-Star and the League worked together on Saturday to elect new speakers for the two houses of parliament, outmanoeuvering the mainstream parties that were battered in the polls. There followed a brief idyll between the two leaders, who praised each other for sticking to their word and proving their trustworthiness.

At one point, Salvini quipped that he spoke to Di Maio on the phone more often than “la mamma”.

But by Wednesday morning, the rapprochement was back on hold over the Five-Star leader’s stubborn refusal to relent on his two conditions for a coalition deal: that he – and no other – be at the helm of the next government, and that Berlusconi’s stooges play no part in it.

Playing hard to get

“Berlusconi and his party are the very opposite of everything Five-Star stands for,” says Maurizio Cotta, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. Any association with the scandal-plagued former premier – who is barred from public office due to a tax fraud conviction – would hollow out Five-Star’s pledge to clean up politics, he explains.

Unlike the anti-migrant and eurosceptic League, which is toxic to the left and thus has no other options to build a majority, Five-Star can also afford to play hard to get.

“Five-Star straddles the left-right divide. It has a more flexible programme and more margin for negotiation,” says Cotta. “In theory, it could team up with just about anyone on the left or the right, barring Berlusconi.”

Even as Salvini and Di Maio draw closer, rumours of an alternative alliance between Five-Star and the rump of the centre-left Democratic Party, the former ruling party, have kept League members on tenterhooks, fearful they might be shut out of government altogether.


As Italy’s various parties begin official consultations with President Sergio Mattarella next week, much will depend on whether the centre-right coalition is still united, or whether Five-Star’s pull will have torn it apart.

On paper, Five-Star and the League could form a government without Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Between them, they have enough seats in parliament. But Salvini is reluctant to ditch his cumbersome ally, with whom his party governs several key regions in Italy’s prosperous north.

“Salvini alone accounts for just 17 percent of voters,” says La Stampa’s Lamattina. “He needs to represent all of the centre-right bloc if he wants a strong hand in talks with Di Maio.”

Lega leader Matteo Salvini has trumped Silvio Berlusconi as the dominant force on the right. © Miguel Medina, AFP

In an interview with the Corriere della Sera daily on Monday, Berlusconi warned the League leader against breaking with his natural allies on the right in order to team up with Di Maio.

Using a cryptic term that sent political commentators scrambling for dictionaries, the 81-year-old tycoon likened a Five-Star-League government to a “hircocervus” – a half-goat, half-stag mythical creature that “ancient philosophers [used] as an example of absurdity because it is made up of opposed and irreconcilable characters".

Unnatural allies

Berlusconi has a point. Five-Star draws most of its support in Italy’s poorer South, blighted by unemployment and corruption, where voters want more help from the state. The League, on the other hand, is popular among the prosperous North's small and medium-sized business, whose owners crave less red tape and lower taxes. Five-Star’s flagship policy proposal – a basic income for the poor – would be impossible to fund with the League’s promised 15 percent flat-tax rate. And while many of Five-Star’s voters regard themselves as left-wing, Salvini’s party has lurched heavily to the right.

But already there are signs of convergence, notes La Mattina, and of a softening in policy stances. In recent days, Salvini and Di Maio have looked for common ground, including on pension reform and clawing back powers from the European Union. In a mollifying signal, the League leader even suggested he could back a basic income “provided it helps people find jobs, rather than remain idle at home”.

Video: What is Italy's Five Star Movement?

Support for a joint government has also increased among the parties’ voters, according to an SWG poll for Il Messaggero newspaper published on Saturday. It showed 59 percent of Five-Star voters and 58 percent of League supporters favour an alliance between the two. The figures suggest Five-Star voters now accept that the anti-establishment party must agree to some form of compromise if it is to rule.

From rebels to rulers

“Five-Star have always refused to get their hands dirty, but now that they’re the biggest party in the country they have to deliver the change they promised voters,” says La Mattina. “There comes a point when they have to stop being a party of rebels to become a party of government.”

Just how much “dirt” Five-Star’s newly elected lawmakers can stomach was apparent on Saturday when they backed a Berlusconi loyalist for Senate speaker in a tactical vote that paved the way for one of their own to become speaker of the lower house.

“In time, the party’s vetoes against Berlusconi and his entourage are likely to fade away,” says La Mattina. In turn, the former PM’s hostility towards the Five-Star Movement could also wane provided his own interests are safeguarded, he adds.

“Berlusconi’s main concern is that the next government doesn’t hurt his many businesses,” La Mattina explains. “If Salvini can guarantee this, then Berlusconi will agree to step aside.”

Date created : 2018-03-29


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