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Can a left-wing alliance stop Salvini from forming a far-right government in Italy?

Filippo Monteforte, AFP | Leader of Italy's far-right League party and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini addresses the Italian parliament, August 13, 2019.

Far-right strongman Matteo Salvini’s call for snap elections has raised the spectre of an exclusively nationalist Italian government dominated by his League party, engendering a cross-party opposition attempt to deny him an early vote.

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The Italian government has been in a state of crisis for a week, since the leader of the far-right League and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini demanded on August 8 the dissolution of parliament and new legislative elections – tearing asunder the populist coalition that had united Salvini’s party with the Five Star Movement since May 2018.

The far-right Il Capitano (“The Captain”), as his supporters have nicknamed him, is trying to capitalise on his current strength to obtain the “full powers” that he wants Italian voters to give him. “Salvini has electoral momentum behind him: triumph in the European elections and victories in local and regional elections, reinforced by extremely flattering opinion polls,” Marc Lazar, an Italy specialist and professor of history and sociology at Sciences Po University in Paris, told FRANCE 24.

These electoral successes compounded a party management issue Salvini had to deal with. “A significant part of his party demanded the end of this alliance with the M5S, on the grounds that it wasn’t amenable to the League’s policy agenda,” Lazar continued.

Salvini ‘wants to govern alone or with Brothers of Italy’

The most recent issue that exposed the divisions between the two parties – and served as catalyst for the breakup of the coalition – was a proposed rail link between Turin in northwestern Italy and Lyon in southwestern France. The M5S is diametrically opposed to this project – indeed, stopping it is a key plank of the party’s policy programme – while the League strongly supports it. Meanwhile, in early August, Salvini called into question the Five Star Movement's flagship proposal, universal basic income.

Despite what appears to be a favourable political climate, Il Capitano has some tricky deadlines looming in the autumn, including a vote on reducing the number of lawmakers in both the lower and upper houses of parliament – which would delay the dissolution of the two chambers – and a vote on the 2020 Italian budget.

“The budgetary vote is a real banana-skin issue: it’s set to be quite explosive in the autumn because there will be no budgetary rigour, contrary to the European Commission’s demands,” said Jean-Pierre Darnis, a specialist on Italian foreign policy at the Institute of International Affairs in Rome, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

“This could lead to a significant increase in VAT in Italy,” Darnis explained. In order for its 2019 budget to win Brussels’ acceptance, Rome has signed a “safeguard clause”, which triggers an increase in VAT if the government has not passed sufficient measures to reduce Italy’s budget deficit.

Salvini hopes to pass the 2020 budget “without being forced to make compromises with the M5S”, according to Lazar. But early elections would likely obviate this problem by “ensuring that the League has a parliamentary majority, either alone or with its ally the Brothers of Italy, an even more right-wing party”, Lazar continued.

M5S and PD ‘may well overcome past enmities’

However, it seems that the Italian Senate wanted to fly in the face of Salvini’s ambitions by postponing the motion of no confidence on the current government from August 14 to August 20.

This delay was passed thanks to a cross-party alliance in opposition to Salvini – as M5S lawmakers joined forces with those in the Democratic Party (PD), the party of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. At present, the two parties are not allies. However, this “convergence” against Il Capitano “could lead to something else”, Ludmila Acone, an Italy specialist and historian at Paris 1 University, told FRANCE 24.

Salvini is especially keen to expedite the calling of elections in order to prevent the emergence of a M5S-PD alliance that would stymie his plans. “Negotiations are underway to see if those two parties could cobble together a majority, and thus the formation of a new government that would avoid triggering elections as soon as possible,” Lazar pointed out.

Nevertheless, it’s the Five Star Movement that risks a drubbing in the event of early elections. “It’s polling at around 17 percent of the vote – so around half of their previous legislative election result,” Darnis noted. But on the other side of the political spectrum, he continued, opinion polls point to “a real danger – that of a far-right government, with the League at 38 percent, the ultra-nationalist Brothers of Italy at 6-8 percent and [ex-Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi’s traditional right-wing movement at 6 percent”.

That’s while the formation of an alliance would be a bitter pill to swallow for some elements within both parties: “part of the M5S couldn’t agree to forming a government with the PD, and vice versa,” said Lazar. “At the same time, the fear of early elections – carrying with it threat of heavy losses – means that the two parties may well overcome their past enmities, with the goal of throwing Salvini out of government.”

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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