World Politics

Salvini wants to run Italy and is about to get it

Giuseppe Conte, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio attend a session in the Lower House
Giuseppe Conte, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio attend a session in the Lower House

A new and dangerous phase of Italian populism begins: the Nationalist League party is ready to devour its coalition partner
The League of Salvini has gained strength after the overwhelming result in the European and has launched a motion of censure to remove the 5 Star Movement
Steve Bannon had already planned a conflicting end for the coalition government in Italy: “They will rule together, but Salvini is the true leader,” he said.

Giuseppe Conte, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio attend a session in the Lower House
Giuseppe Conte, Matteo Salvini, and Luigi Di Maio attend a session in the Lower House

The second act in the Italian populism drama is beginning and is a confrontation between the protagonists that made the first possible. The League has gained strength since the 2018 elections and is fed up with the 5 Star Movement (M5S), its partner in the government coalition. The feeling is that this is the time to accumulate all power and put its leader, Matteo Salvini, as prime minister.

Steve Bannon had already anticipated that something like that would end up happening. “They will rule together, but Salvini is the true leader because Luigi Di Maio, leader of the M5S, looks like Emmanuel Macron,” said theorist of the US populist wave who took Trump to the White House in 2016 just a few days after the agreement. The Italian coalition never ceased to be a strictly tactical alliance because populism always ends with a single leader.

The general elections last year, the first act of this new Italian political phenomenon, radically changed the rules of the game with the emergence of a strong populist majority among the electorate. But the coalition government that resulted has exposed abysmal differences between the partners. In the elections to the European Parliament on May 26, the League won twice as many seats as the 5 Star Movement.

For Salvini, it was the signal that the time had come to launch the second act. To verify whether it is realizable or not, the League has initiated a motion of censure against the current Prime Minister, the lawyer Giuseppe Conte, who on Tuesday lives his moment of truth in the Chamber of Deputies.

The project is to remake Italian populism in the image and likeness of the aggressive nationalism of the League. More ambiguous in its positioning, the 5 Star Movement is perceived as a lot of losers.

We are facing a rebellion of the Italian middle classes. What began as a protest against inequality, migrants and corruption, has gained strength by generating new conflicts and enemies. Now what they want is a strong leader rather than a complex alliance of poorly defined ways.

The nationalism of the League aims to close ports to immigrants, impose fines of up to one million euros to anyone who helps a refugee at sea, vote in Strasbourg against the new president of the European Commission and turn the next Italian budget into an Open rebellion against the fiscal rules of Europe.

With Salvini at the helm, everything takes place in a public spectacle of crucifixes and prayers on the beach, with the vocabulary of the ultras of the world of football and the tribal exaltation of an ethnonationalism identity. Hostility towards immigrants and the duel with Europe are the two pillars that win votes to Salvini and pulverize the M5S, whose commitment to a basic income to “defeat poverty” has proved too vague to be created by anyone.

Now Salvini prepares to go against his former allies. To get rid of it, the 5 Star Movement should have been transformed into a credible government force and a guarantor of stability. Or what is the same, move from protest to the art of governing. They were not able to do it because they were linked to an ideology against growth and that led them to make a series of mistakes.

It was a mistake to oppose the nomination of Rome for the 2024 Olympic Games and that of Turin for the Winter Games in 2026. It was a mistake to oppose a high-speed rail link between France and Italy, to a new highway in the north from Italy and an oil drilling project in territorial waters off the coast.

The 5 Star Movement has given the impression of opposing the modernization of the country and the result has been to lose leadership in the protest movement with its annihilation in the regional elections, first, and with its humiliation in the European elections, later. The possible motion of censure against Conte could now leave them without the prime minister.

In this new phase of Italian populism, the nationalists would rise to power with a probable agreement between Salvini and the Brothers of Italy, the Giorgia Meloni far-right party, bringing the country a little closer to the model of Poland and Hungary. To try to stop his former comrades in arms, the M5S will have to make the desperate decision to sink orally with traditional parties.

The next time is aggression and conflicts. With Salvini in charge, the second act of Italian populism will be a tough battle against anyone who tries to get in the way. Their adversaries will have to choose: launch a frontal challenge at the polls or form a coalition government bringing together all the anti-Salvini forces of the current parliament. In any case, the confrontation will be a kind of referendum on national identity and the relationship with Europe. In Italy, the next phase of the political battle is going to be a duel between the extremes.

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