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Italy's president taps Berlusconi ally to break government deadlock

© Andreas Solaro, AFP | Senate leader Maria Casellati has been tasked with trying to break a deadlock in talks between the Five-Star Movement and a centre-right coalition led by the anti-immigrant League party.

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2018-04-18

Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella has given Senate chief Maria Casellati just over 48 hours to achieve mission impossible: persuade rival party leaders to stop bickering over her mentor, Silvio Berlusconi, and agree to form a new government.

The eurozone’s third-largest economy has been under a caretaker government since a March 4 general election resulted in a hung parliament and a seismic shift in Italian politics, with anti-establishment and hard-right parties triumphing at the expense of more mainstream groups.

Among the nominal victors was the “anti-system” Five-Star Movement, which emerged as Italy’s largest single party by a stretch. Another was 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.

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

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. However, two rounds of consultations with President Mattarella have failed to overcome the main stumbling block: Five-Star’s veto on Berlusconi and his party.

Havings promised new and squeaky-clean politics, Five-Star cannot contemplate a deal with the scandalous media mogul and former prime minister, now aged 81. Di Maio has effectively told the League to get rid of Berlusconi or the deal is off. But Salvini is reluctant to ditch his cumbersome ally, because he needs a united right-wing bloc to have a strong hand in negotiations.

Berlusconi veto ‘will remain’

Ironically, Mattarella’s decision to task Senate chief Casellati with breaking the logjam means it is now down to a Berlusconi stalwart to persuade Di Maio and Salvini to relent. On Wednesday, the Italian president asked Casellati to explore “the scope” for a deal between the right-wing bloc and the Five-Star Movement, telling her to report back to him on Friday.

As head of the Italian Senate, Casellati is the second-highest-ranking official after Mattarella, making her the logical choice after presidential consultations failed to break the impasse. But she is also a longtime Berlusconi ally, closely linked to the so-called “ad personam” laws passed over the years to protect the former prime minister and his businesses.

League leader Matteo Salvini (right) is under pressure to ditch his cumbersome ally Silvio Berlusconi. © Alberto Pizzoli, AFP

Immediate reactions to her appointment on Wednesday suggest there is little reason to believe Italy’s first female Senate leader will succeed where the president has so far failed.

"We will tell Casellati the same things we told Mattarella,” said Vito Crimi, a prominent Five-Star senator. “The veto on Berlusconi will remain because Berlusconi and Forza Italia represent the status quo and we want to change things," he added.

Di Maio himself reiterated that stance after first talks with Casellati, saying: “Five-Star is ready to sign a government contract with the League and not with all the centre-right." His offer came with an ultimatum for Salvini to “make up his mind this week”.

Back to the left?

Analysts say Salvini is unlikely to want to compromise before local elections are held in two Italian regions later this month, including in northeastern Friuli-Venezia Giulia, where his League party is tipped to win with the backing of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

Should neither side cede ground, attention is likely to shift back to the election’s main loser, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which has governed Italy for the last five years.

On paper, the former ruling party could find more common ground with the Five-Star Movement. It has just about enough lawmakers to give the anti-establishment party a majority in parliament. But most of those MPs are supporters of outgoing leader Matteo Renzi, who fiercely opposes any deal with Di Maio.

A supporter of the Five-Star Movement holds a poster reading "Renzusconi, you will all go home" and showing a photomontage of former Italian premiers Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli, AFP

As Five-Star and the League continue to bicker, however, cracks have started to emerge in the battered PD, where some advocate a deal with Di Maio in order to keep Salvini’s Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant party out of power.

On Tuesday, the centre-left party’s interim leader Maurizio Martini said he was open to discuss concrete proposals with whoever wins a mandate to form a government. The proposals, centred on tackling poverty and increasing welfare, were widely interpreted as overtures to the Five-Star Movement, whose economic platform leans to the left.

With the situation still extremely fluid, a further round of exploratory talks – this time led by the president of the lower house of parliament, Five-Star’s Roberto Fico – remains a likely prospect. Should that also fail, Mattarella may soon find he has little choice but to call new elections.

Date created : 2018-04-18

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