Italian Right’s Victory in Central Region Challenges Coalition Government

By Daniele Albertazzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) and Mattia Zulianello (PiAP Italy focused Research Fellow) – first published by European Politics and Policy Blog at the London School of Economics.

The Italian right scored a stunning victory in the regional election in Umbria in central Italy on Sunday, casting doubt on how long Italy’s current government — backed by the left and the Five Star Movement (M5S) — can survive.

Umbria’s new Governor is Donatella Tesei, a League (Lega) Party senator who also enjoyed the backing of Forza Italia and Brothers of Italy. With this support, she took 57.5% of the vote, compared with Vincenzo Bianconi’s 37.5%.

Umbria had been governed by left wingers since the institution of regional administrations about 50 years ago, but the writing for the ruling centre-left Democratic Party (PD) has been on the wall. The League gained an impressive 38.2% of the Umbrian vote in the 2019 European elections, and the PD’s reputation took a hit when the previous governor had to quit due to a scandal. However, what was unexpected was the scale of the PD’s defeat, particularly since it had reached an agreement with the populist M5S that they would both throw their weight behind Bianconi’s candidature for the governorship.

Winners and Losers

An early sign of the shift was the 9% increase in turnout to 64.4%, compared with that of the regional elections of 2015. It is yet another confirmation that, when people believe they can bring about change, they participate in larger numbers. The right swapped places with the PD/M5S alliance, securing almost exactly the same percentage of votes that its opponents had gained in the previous regional election.

The League, which had become the largest party at the 2018 general election, confirmed its status by gaining roughly the same percentage of votes it secured in the 2019 EU ballot: 37% on Sunday versus 38.2% in the spring. Brothers of Italy, a party many commentators regard as extreme right, also had a very good night: it doubled its support from 2018, with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia limping home on 5.5% of the vote — a nightmare for what had once been the dominant component of the right-wing coalition.

If Berlusconi may not have felt like cracking open the prosecco, the right’s opponents had even less reason to celebrate. This was particularly true of the M5S, as it clinched a mere 7.4% of the vote vs. the 27.5% it achieved in 2018. At 22.3%, the PD’s vote share was not dissimilar to what it had gained in the general election last year and the EU elections this year, but the problems for the party are the loss of the governorship and the scale of Lega leader Matteo Salvini’s triumph.

The Right Won: So What Now?

The success of the right is undeniable, but the reasons why this should matter beyond the borders of Umbria may not be immediately apparent, given that only 700,000 people were entitled to vote in this election.

Instead, the composition of the losing coalition is the issue here, insofar as it closely mirrors the one governing the country.

Salvini’s League decided 2 1/2 months ago to walk out of the government it had formed with the M5S, but the party failed to trigger a general election. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte managed to stay on, supported by the PD and M5S.

Now that these two parties have resoundingly failed to pass their first electoral test of their coalition, Salvini will agitate to get the election that eluded him in the summer claiming that the government does not enjoy the support of Italians. If a defeat in Umbria sets in motion a series of similar defeats for the PD and M5S across Italy, an election may well become inevitable. Specifically, if the right wins the election coming up in January in the much larger Emilia-Romagna region – another former stronghold of the left, but one that has not been plagued by scandals – then the momentum could become unstoppable for a fresh national ballot next spring.

The scale of the M5S’s defeat indicates that its decision to integrate into the political system and abandon its isolationist stategy has largely been a failure. Unlike many of its populist counterparts, M5S has lost its credibility as it has started taking on governing responsibilities. Faced by a rapidly weakening party, the most “League-friendly” M5S deputies and senators may have a strong incentive to jump ship and join the League’s group in Parliament, possibly leading to Conte losing his majority. Beyond this swapping of t-shirts — hardly unusual in Italy — there are also those within the M5S who see an early election as an opportunity to get rid of “the old guard”, starting with their high-profile leader and current Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio. They would be happy to regroup in opposition, if the prize were a fundamental shake-up of the party.

As for the left, unity is obviously not their forte. The PD recently suffered yet another split when former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi left to create a personal, centrist party. It is impossible to guess for how long Renzi will want to be seen as being on the side of a “coalition of losers” by providing support to Prime Minister Conte, if more defeats are ahead. Renzi may view an early election as the lesser of two evils, to establish his party as the novelty of the contest and with an eye to eroding the PD’s support. Tt was not lost on anyone that Renzi avoided turning up during the last days of the campaign in Umbria, as rumors about the growth of the right were intensifying.

The League, once a regional actor concentrated in the north of the peninsula, is consolidating its status as a nationwide party. Salvini will continue to lead the right for the foreseeable future. Opposing him will be two parties that at present look directionless.

If the right can repeat its Umbrian feat in forthcoming regional elections – a much harder task in Emilia-Romagna – then Sunday’s vote may come to be seen as the beginning of the end for the second Conte premiership – and possibly for the Five Star Movement as we know it.

Populist Parties as “The New Normal”: An Interview with Mattia Zulianello

Mattia Zulianello (PiAP’s Italy focused Research Fellows) talks with Political Observer about populist parties and how they integrate into the systems of their respective countries, even as they present themselves as anti-elitist?

PO: In your study, you calculate that in Europe 2/3rds of contemporary populist parties are integrated in their political systems, while only 1/3rd are relegated to the margins. Is it possible to claim that populist parties are the “new normal”? And how can you explain that populism relies on anti-elitist concepts while being part of the political system?

MZ: To some extent, yes: populist parties are the “new normal”.

In many countries, populist parties are required to give life to governmental majorities. Once favorable political conditions exist, a process of legitimation between the populists and the major non-populist actor(s) can replace years of reciprocal hostility.

This can occur very rapidly. In some countries the populists really dominate the electoral arena, in particular in Italy and Hungary. In others, despite their limited electoral strength – they still dominate the media arena.

So the increasing integration of populist parties into national political systems is part of a broader process of the normalization and legitimation of populism by more “conventional” partisan actors, such as centre-right and centre-left parties, but also in the media and public debate.

This is particularly evident in the case of populist radical right parties, given the unprecedented importance of nativism in the public debate; in the agendas of more traditional competitors; and even at the European Union level, as shown by the recent controversies over the new portfolio for “protecting our European way of life”.

However, this does not mean that the normalization and legitimation of populism is limited to the right side of the political spectrum. Albeit less evident in comparison with those mobilizing immigration and cultural issues, populist parties of other varieties now set the public agenda in many countries.

This is due to two major reasons. First, in most cases perception is more important than reality, such as immigration numbers vs. perception of immigration or objective economic indicators vs .the feeling of relative deprivation). Second, the moralistic rather than programmatic emphasis of populism fits well with the insatiable demand for spectacle by journalists in an age of “hybrid media systems“.

Over-representation in the media is precisely what should be avoided, and the strategy of over-demonization does not work either: populists — whether of the right, left, or valence variety — seek media attention, and the media, in most cases, give them exactly what they want. In many cases this is also true of us as political scientists: we ascribe a disproportionate importance to marginal actors and events.

PO: How does populism rely on anti-elitist concepts while being part of the political system?

MZ: Anti-elitism, or an anti-establishment attitude, is a key part of the identity and profile of a populist party. If a populist party ceases to be anti-elitist, it also ceases to be populist.

The key point is how the populists can remain credible in their anti-elitism despite integration. Despite the ongoing parroting of the frames and style of populists in some policy areas by more conventional parties, voters usually prefer the original rather than the copy.

Simply put, anti-elitism needs to be credibly articulated. This is easier when populist parties effectively qualify as anti-system parties and are at the margins. It is less easy when they become “coalitionable”, and it becomes much more complex when they hold national office. However, even though in many cases the policy achievements of populist parties in office are limited, they can remain credible in the electoral market if they preserve organizational cohesion and manage to deliver the image of being “proactive” actors, irrespective of the actual outcomes.

This can be achieved by adopting a narrative such as “We (really) tried to do y, but for x reasons (independent of our control) it was not possible.” This often takes the form of blame-shifting directed against “the elites”, “the deep state”, or “strong powers”.

Paradoxically, this can contribute to the sustainability of anti-elitism, despite the visible integration of populist parties into national political systems. It is shown by the recent strategy adopted by Matteo Salvini following the failed attempt by the Lega to force new elections in Italy, but also by Alexis Tsipras following his U-turn after the 2015 Greek bailout referendum.

It must be emphasized that this strategy works only if the party manages to contain internal conflict and articulate a consistent and clear message to the voters. The latter has been successfully achieved by various populist parties across Europe; however, it is difficult, as shown by the Austrian FPÖ in 2002 or the Greek Orthodox Rally in 2012.

These maneuvers require strategic and leadership skills, but populist parties are increasingly able to cope with the pressures both of cooperation with non-populist parties and of participation in government.

PO: Let’s have a closer look at the 66 parties you identify as populist. Where are they positioned on the left-right political spectrum? And which are those parties that you call “valence populism”?

MZ: Among the 66 parties I analysed in my article, the vast majority can be located on the right-side of the political spectrum (68.2%).

Among this broad category, the most populated sub-group is represented by populist radical right parties (31), followed by national-conservative populists (10), and a few neo-liberal populists (4).

Only 16.7% of contemporary populist parties are found on the left portion of the political spectrum. A tiny majority of them (6) qualify as typical “social populists”, while the others (5) combine socialism with some form of nationalism.

Finally, for the remaining populist actors (15.1%), I introduce the term of “valence populist parties”, building upon the insights of Kenneth Roberts. Such parties are commonly found in Central and Eastern Europe, with prominent examples including GERB in Bulgaria, ANO 2011 in the Czech Republic, and the List of Marjan Šarec in Slovenia.

Perhaps the best example is the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy. M5S cannot be located in positional terms across the left-right political space, and various studies have outlined its ideological flexibility and eclecticism. The same applies to many parties in Central and Eastern Europe, which, like M5S, over-emphasize non-positional issues such as competence, performance, and anti-corruption.

These features are almost identical to those evoked by the existing definition of a “centrist populist party”, but this is misleading because valence populists lack a clear positioning. Sure, they are not left nor right, but they cannot be located in the “center” either.

Valence populists may well adopt specific positions. However, in contrast to an unadulterated (or pure) version of populism, positions adopted by parties such as the M5S are flexible, free-floating, often inconsistent, and very much influenced by the structure of political opportunity. M5S’s recent and prompt shift from a government coalition with the populist radical right Lega to one with the center-left Democratic Party provides clear evidence for these features.

PO: When speaking of populism, there is much confusion around terms and definitions. Can you tell us what features distinguish populist parties vis-à-vis anti-establishment, challenger, and outsider parties?

MZ: Well, tons of ink could be spent in reply to this question. To avoid this, I will try to focus on the most important differences, while inviting the reader to see my article for further details.

First, it is very important to underline that none of the three terms are synonyms, even though they are often treated as such. I realized the extreme degree of confusion characterizing the conceptual debate on “anti” during my PhD thesis, which was published as a book by Routledge this year.

Although there are different conceptualizations of the terms “challenger’ and ‘outsider” parties, the most common approaches refer to a specific location of a party in the party system: in the case of the former, the absence of governmental experience; in the latter, the exclusion from the coalition game.

As I highlight in my article, populist parties are not necessarily challengers nor outsiders. On the contrary, around 40% of contemporary populist parties have government experience — and this percentage is rising) — while about 2/3rs are variously integrated in visible cooperative interactions in the political system. This includes, but is not limited to, the ability and willingness to use coalition potential, participation in pre-electoral coalitions, or full participation in national office with the major parties in the system.

Finally, “anti-establishment” depends on how we define the term. If we use it to indicate, inter alia, the unwillingness of a party to cooperate with the “mainstream”, then populist parties are not necessarily anti-establishment; only a minority would qualify as such. However, if we avoid assuming specific behavioral tendencies and use the term to refer only to the ideology of a given party — which is more appropriate, in my view — then populist parties are always anti-establishment in ideational terms, given their emphasis on anti-elitism.

The point is that this ideational orientation is increasingly disjointed from the role of a populist actor in the party system. In other words, for many populist parties, the anti-establishment ideology is not accompanied by an anti-establishment (or uncompromising) behavior.

PO: To go beyond the existing problems with the anti-establishment characteristics of populist parties, you propose a new classification: non-integrated, negatively integrated, and positively integrated populist parties. Which kind of parties belong to the three groups? Why is this classification more precise than previous ones?

MZ: My new classification was inspired precisely by the increasing integration of various types of political parties without the concomitant occurrence of substantial ideological moderation, something that was somehow overlooked in the classical works of Giovanni Sartori.

This led me to the development of a revisited concept of anti-system party. This later served as the foundation for the comprehensive empirical analyses of the challenges faced by such parties that I carried out in my book.

Subsequently, I realized that a fruitful field of application was the comprehensive analysis of the different interaction streams characterizing contemporary populist parties, especially in the light of the terminological and conceptual confusion in the academic debate.

Following Sartori’s classical conception, populist parties — at least in fully liberal-democratic contexts — would qualify by definition as anti-system, given his focus on party propaganda. However, empirical reality suggests that there are huge differences among populist parties in terms of the actual role played in their own national contexts.

Following my conceptualization, I consider anti-system only the populist parties that, in addition to questioning crucial elements of the status quo — most notably the liberal-representative elements of the political regime — are also at the margins of the party system. These are “non-integrated” populist parties, which do not simply challenge the system in ideational terms but also adopt an uncompromising, antagonistic posture vis-à-vis “the system parties”. These represent a systemic constraint, especially in view of a possible extension of the area of government, such as Human Shield in Croatia and the Sweden Democrats.

However, only a minority of contemporary European populist parties are actually anti-system in my conceptualization. The vast majority of them are integrated into the national political systems, meaning that they are involved in important and very visible cooperative interactions at the systemic level, which indicate that they have crossed the threshold of legitimation.

But the integration of populist parties can be either “negative” or “positive”. In fully-fledged liberal democracies, the integration of populist parties is invariably of the “negative” type because, despite their involvement in cooperative interactions, they remain ideologically opposed to one or more key features of the status quo. Commonly, this is the political regime, but in some cases this also encompasses the configuration of the political community or the (capitalist) economic system. Notable examples of negatively integrated populist parties are the Five Star Movement and the Lega in Italy, Podemos in Spain, and the Swiss People’s Party.

On the other hand, in flawed democracies or non-democracies, the integration of populist parties well be of the “positive” type. Given the illiberal nature of such regimes, their ideational profile may be in a symbiotic relationship with the status quo, its values, and practices, as shown in particular by the case of Fidesz in Hungary.

Hence, the utility of my classification is the capacity of distinguishing the very different roles played by populist parties in contemporary party systems, rather than forcing this heterogeneity into over-simplistic assumptions that in the end unrelated to the empirical reality.

For instance, the Lega is a paradigmatic case of a negatively-integrated populist party. However, even though it is the oldest parliamentary party in Italy and has a long record of participation in national governments, it is still considered by some scholars as a “challenger” or “outsider” party…

PO: Talking of positively-integrated populist parties, you write that “in hybrid or fully authoritarian contexts, populist parties may well be ‘positively’ integrated into the system, meaning that they share its underlying values, as shown by the cases of Hungary, Russia and Serbia”. What are the implications of this finding for the future of liberal democracy in Europe, in particular concerning popular sovereignty and pluralism?

MZ: This finding is simultaneously intriguing and disheartening. Whereas the authoritarian nature of the Russian regime is not the consequence of populism, in the cases of Hungary and Serbia the process of de-democratization was actively pursued and achieved by the ruling populist parties: Fidesz and the Serbian Progressive Party, respectively.

As I argue in the article, “these parties changed the sources of legitimation upon which the political regime itself is built”. Clearly, this was decisively favored by the recent democratization of both the countries, but in the case of Hungary this occurred in an European Union member state. This what I find particularly disturbing.

Commenting on the outcome of the 2019 European Parliament elections, Martin Selmayr, then Secretary-General of the European Commission, declared that the “populist wave…was contained”. However, leaving aside that the de-democratization of Hungary would not have been possible without the (in)actions of the European People’s Party, this statement well summarizes the limited vision of non-populist parties and politicians: their focus is placed on short-term electoral. Meanwhile, populism has already profoundly changed the political debate in the EU, and even transformed a country located in the very heart of the European Union into a “(competitive) authoritarian regime”.


Matteo Salvini is Down But Not Out in Italy

By Daniele Albertazzi (PiAP Principal Investigator) – Originally written for The Conversation

Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s Lega (League) Party and former Interior Minister, has bad news piling up on him. The situation has gone from bad to worse since he brought down his own government last month in an attempt to force new elections.

It was clear immediately that President Sergio Mattarella was not willing to facilitate Salvini’s election plan. Instead, he encouraged coalition talks between unlikely allies — the Five Star Movement, which had been in government with the League, the Democratic Party, and the tiny Free and Equal Party. All went unexpectedly smoothly and this new government is up and running, having secured the confidence of Parliament.

The Democratic Party has allowed Giuseppe Conte, who led the previous government, to stay on as Prime Minister. This is a huge victory for him and for Five Star, but it came with concessions. The Democrats took control of many and important ministries, including the economy portfolio. That means an unapologetically pro-EU party is now in charge.

Five Star and the Democratic Party have shown an unexpected propensity for compromise so far. No doubt there will be plenty of clashes ahead, but there is also a realistic chance that the new governing majority will find agreement in areas about which their electorate very much cares, including investment in the green economy and the welfare state, legislation on precarious working conditions, and increased funding for education and southern Italy, to cite just a few.

Headlines now declare Salvini’s era has “come to an end”. Deprived of his job as Interior Minister, he will no longer be able to use a position of power to conduct a constant election campaign based on immigration and on law and order issues.

To those who have followed Italian politics for a while, however, these claims look very premature. There is no doubt that Salvini has miscalculated – he is wounded and struggling to repackage his loss of power as a victory. His image as the successful “Captain” (as his social media team has renamed him to differentiate him from the previous Lega head, who was known as “the Boss”) may take some time to recover. This may be a problem for a leader who has turned his party into a personalized organisation that very much relies on his image and communicative ability for its success. But Salvini has many cards up his sleeve, both in the strength of the organization backing him — well-rooted in the north and running a very efficient social media operation — and the issues he can campaign on in the near-future.

Strength in Opposition

For instance, Five Star is very successful in the south of Italy, so the new government is unlikely to deliver the kind of greater regional autonomy that wins votes in the north. In the northern regions, where the League has always been strong, the desire to see more tax receipts being used to improve public services locally is widespread. But introducing a reform that deprives the public purse of considerable resources would make it impossible to run decent services in the poorest regions of the south.

In this sense, not being in government is convenient for the League, as there was no way they would have managed to deliver what their northern constituencies wanted while sharing power with Five Star. The circle simply could not be squared on this issue, and any compromise would have looked like failure.

The same can be said of the 2019 budget, which is obviously going to be drafted by someone other than Salvini. Reconciling the League’s promise to cut taxes with the Five Star’s largesse on welfare would have meant either cutting tax by too little or to too few people. Now the League won’t need to compromise anymore, and neither will it be seen amending the budget to meet the objections of the EU Commission – as it had to do last year.

Then there is migration, which the League has managed to reduce to the much narrower, but symbolically charged, issue of people trying to cross the Mediterranean sea from Africa. Salvini’s approach (“let’s close the ports!”) has large support among the Italian electorate — including, interestingly, Five Star’s voters. No doubt the League will relentlessly focus on the supposed failures of the new administration on this issue.

Salvini has a clear message and “owns” several key themes such as low taxation, regionalism, immigration and law and order. He can also rely on a rooted party and a very efficient media operation.

Much like anyone else, he is, of course, beatable – and his aura as a winner has taken a heavy blow. But those now rushing to write his political obituary should take a good look at the reasons for the League’s success throughout the years, as well as the party’s presence on the ground and its ability to run effective campaigns. They won’t see this party or its leader disappear any time soon.The Conversation


Has Italy’s New Government Pushed Aside Matteo Salvini?

On Thursday, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accepted a mandate to form a new coalition — one without the Lega party, Matteo Salvini. Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi was interviewed about this for Turkey’s international TV news channel

Salvini, who has transformed Lega from a regional party for the north into a national force, gambled by bringing down the government in a split with his partner, the Five Star Movement.

But Five Star reached a deal with the centrist Democratic Party, which led the government until June 2018. And Conte, in an apparent jab at Salvini, vowed to lead a “more united, inclusive” Italy: “It will be a government for the good of the citizens, to modernise the country, to make our nation even more competitive internationally, but also more just, more supportive and more inclusive.”

Last week Conte, a law professor appointed as an “independent” to hold together the coalition, said in Parliament that Salvini had created a political crisis for “personal and party interests”.

So has Salvini’s quest to fashion himself as the leader of right-wing populism, often bashing both immigrants and the European Union, been halted?

Why Italy’s Salvini Will Survive His Russia Money Scandal?

by Shane Croucher for Newsweek. featuring Populism in Action’s Dr. Daniele Albertazzi.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s co-Deputy Prime Minister, Interior Minister and chairman of the far-right Lega (the League) Party, will survive the Russia money scandal that currently engulfs him and stay on course to become Prime Minister within months, according to an expert on the country’s politics.

BuzzFeed News obtained a recording of a meeting between Italians — including a close aide of Salvini’s, his former spokesman Gianluca Savoini — and Russians to discuss a deal that would have sent illicit oil money from Russia to the League for its European elections campaign.

The meeting took place in Moscow in October 2018 at the same time as a visit by Salvini to the Russian capital where he met with President Vladimir Putin. Salvini, whose party is now under investigation, has threatened to sue for libel over the reports, according to The Guardian.

The League’s coalition partners, the populist Five Star Movement, said they would only support a Parliamentary inquiry into the Russia deal — which apparently never came to fruition — if it covered the financing of all parties in Italy.

“Which is a way of saying no,” Dr. Daniele Albertazzi, an expert on Italian politics at the University of Birmingham in the U.K., told Newsweek. “Such an inquiry would take years, and would soon turn into a mess.”

Salvini, a hardline nationalist whose rising popularity comes off the back of his anti-immigration stance, particularly his opposition to allowing any more migrants or refugees crossing the Mediterranean Sea to enter Italy, aspires to the country’s Prime Ministership.

He is unashamedly pro-Russia and pro-Putin, and has sought closer ties between Rome and Moscow. When reports of the Moscow meeting first emerged in L’Espresso in February, Savoini dismissed them as “fake news”. Now, with the BuzzFeed tape, there is hard evidence.

According to a transcript of the recorded meeting, one of the unidentified Russians referred to Salvini as “the European Trump, because he has now become the head of all the ultra-right [in Europe]”. The Russians appeared to be liaising with the Kremlin over the proposed deal.

Salvini’s party currently has momentum in Italian politics. At the European Parliament elections in May, the League topped the polls and won over three million more votes than the center-left Democratic Party in second place. The Five Star Movement came third.

“I do not see this harming Salvini’s popularity,” Albertazzi, who expects the current coalition government to fall in the autumn over the budget or regional independence, told Newsweek:

Italians have other worries, and anyway, a lot of people will buy the line that this is all fake.

In any case, there is no smoking gun — so far — hat any money has in fact been paid, and no, I don’t think he will resign, nor that it will harm his chances of becoming PM, which I think is realistic to expect by spring next year.

A Non-Politician is Logical Choice to Lead Italy’s New Government…But He Won’t Last Long

“Soon a bolder government will be said to be needed – and the cycle will start all over again”

By Daniele Albertazzi – originally Published in The Conversation:

After a confusing election and months of negotiations, Italy has a government once again. But don’t be surprised if it gets a new one before too long.

The two winners of the 2018 election – the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League – have struck a deal to form a government, making the surprise announcement that they have chosen Giuseppe Conte, a law professor at Florence University, as prime minister.

Apart from having been mentioned by M5S before the elections as a possible minister, and apparently contributing to writing up the coalition deal, Conte has no experience as a politician – he isn’t even the leader of a party.

But that is precisely the point. Conte’s appointment allows both parties to save face. The League can point to his expertise in the law and conveniently ignore his contacts with M5S – hence getting this government off the ground and showing to the electorate that it is trying its best to provide leadership for the country. Meanwhile, M5S can say to its members that it has, to all intents and purposes, secured the premiership. After all, M5S did emerge as the biggest party after the election, with 32% of the vote versus the League’s 17%.

The other advantage offered by this solution is that, being unknown and having no party of his own, Conte is expected to follow the orders issued by his political masters.

Salvini’s Plan

But can this set up hold? It’s unlikely. In fact, the League’s leader Matteo Salvini has every reason to want it to fail. That would prompt fresh elections, in a couple of years at most. In the meantime, Salvini clearly plans to dominate the agenda for as long as Conte’s executive survives.

There are strong clues that this is Salvini’s plan, if you know where to look for them. In the “contract” the two parties have signed, it says at the beginning that the League will not be treated as the minor partner, even though it is. Neither party can “force decisions on their partner when it comes to issues of great importance to the latter”.

For Salvini, that means immigration and law and order. These are also the themes Salvini would be allowed to “own” if, as is now likely, the president agrees that he should get the job of interior minister.

The sections of the government contract dealing with immigration, law and order and justice are considerably longer than those addressing themes owned by the M5S, such as reducing the cost of politics. And it’s in these sections that the League’s repressive approach is particularly evident.

In this document, the M5S-League alliance promises to introduce tougher sentences for certain crimes, including when they are committed by minors. It will strengthen the right of self-defence and send illegal migrants “back”. There’s a plan to close what are described as “irregular” Islamic associations and mosques and to shut down unauthorised traveller camps. In short, these pages encapsulate Salvini’s thinking extremely well.

Compare these pledges to the section in the contract dedicated to the environment – a theme the M5S fully owns and which is irrelevant to its smaller ally. Here, we find little more than a list of generic platitudes. There are banal invitations to recycle more rubbish and consider the virtues of the green economy, ultimately begging the question: what can the M5S “own”, if it does not own this?

Built-In Obsolescence

The League needs the M5S – and its chosen PM in Conte – to try to implement the agenda set by Salvini, but only so that the latter can accuse them both of betraying “the will of the people”. That would justify bringing the government down and forcing new elections.

This time, a right-wing alliance dominated by the League could win outright – after all, the objective was not missed by much two months ago, and it is unlikely to be frustrated by a divided and ineffective left. The M5S nothwistanding, therefore, such developments could lead to Salvini being PM in the not-too-distant future. That this is Salvini’s ultimate goal is no mystery, as “Salvini premier” is even written into the party’s logo.

The whole game will be easier to play if Salvini does get the job of interior minister. He could then demonstrate hyper-activism on migration and law and order, only to see his efforts constantly frustrated by his coalition partner’s longstanding concern for human rights, interventions by the European Court of Justice, and/or the European Parliament.

These are exactly the challenges a previous interior minister from the League, Roberto Maroni, had to face when serving in the 2008-2011 government. Being attacked by the courts or international institutions can strengthen a populist party’s hand, by providing evidence that the “old elites” are at it again, frustrating “the will of the people” with their dirty tricks.

It is political leaders that matter in Italy. However, when “technocrats” have been given the top job before, some have tried to break away from their masters just before an election by starting their own party (think Mario Monti in 2013). The last thing Salvini needs now would be for Conte to deliver on some of the promises made in the contract, lead a united coalition and complete a full term in government, while his profile is strengthened by success and media exposure.

The ConversationFollowing an initial period during which the League will show its “good faith” by working alongside the others, the most likely scenario is for this government to collapse amid accusations that the programme is not being delivered, the PM is too soft, and M5S has given in to “Brussels”. A bolder government will be said to be needed – and the cycle will start all over again.

Who Isn’t Corrupt as Italy’s Election Nears?

Daniele Albertazzi  writes for The Conversation

Those in charge of auditing Italy’s capital Rome have said that the budget should not be approved as it does not “truthfully and correctly” reflect the municipality’s financial situation.

Patrizio Cinque, the mayor of Bagheria, a town in Sicily, is under investigation for abuse of office and omission of official acts.

The link? Both Cinque and the Rome administration come from the populist Five Star Movement (M5S), which came to prominence pledging to fight the corruption that has dogged Italian public life for so long.

But hardly a week has gone by since the mayoral elections of June 2016 – when M5S gained control of several cities across Italy – without one scandal or another casting doubt on the reputation of M5S-run local administrations. Is the anti-establishment, anti-corruption movement founded by Beppe Grillo, a comedian, becoming a bit too similar to the “traditional” parties it attacks? If so, does it risk losing the support of the people who have flocked to it in recent years?

A Skeleton for Every Closet

Italy’s recent history would suggest that this is a distinct possibility. It’s widely believed that the governing Christian Democracy and the Italian Socialist Party would not have collapsed as quickly as they did at the beginning of the 1990s were it not for corruption scandals. A series of investigations had a serious impact on public opinion at the time.

Since its inception, the M5S has exploited (and, in turn, fuelled) public anger towards the country’s “profiteering” political class. But now the tables seem to be turning and there is a question mark over whether it retains credibility as an anti-corruption party today.

M5S has recently changed the rules on who can run to become Prime Minister so that even would-be candidates who are under investigation for wrongdoing can stand.

This change has enabled the selection of Luigi Di Maio – the current vice-president of the Chamber of Deputies – to become the M5S candidate for PM in next year’s election, even though he is under investigation for defamation.

Whatever the seriousness of the allegations made against Di Maio, it just doesn’t look good that the rules have been bent to allow him to stand. It looks even worse considering he was the candidate favoured by the party’s founder, Beppe Grillo.

The party that could have benefited from the M5S’s troubles is the Lega Nord (Northern League – LN), which started attacking the political class “of Rome” many years before the M5S existed. Pity, however, that the LN is embroiled in a quagmire of legal proceedings of its own.

Following an investigation that started in 2013, its founder and former leader, Umberto Bossi, as well as his children, were given prison sentences for misappropriating party funds. The party’s accounts have now been frozen.

In the meantime, neither of Italy’s other main parties – Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (FI) and Matteo Renzi’s Partito Democratico (Democratic Party – PD) – can reinvent themselves as a credible “corruption bashing” force. They’ve received their fair share of attention from investigating magistrates in recent years. Indeed, Berlusconi is still barred from Parliament, let alone from governing, having been found guilty of bribery as recently as 2015.

Better the Devil You Know

Where does this leave the Italian electorate? It has clearly been deprived of any credible political actors that can put forward those “anti-corruption” discourses that tend to have resonance. Yet there has been no sign that these recent events are having any noticeable impact on the way people are inclined to vote. In fact, the polls have hardly moved for years, with the respective electoral support of the left (i.e. the PD), the right (i.e. FI + LN) and the M5S remaining remarkably stable.

In 2013 each party or block attracted around 25% of the vote. Now, four years later, each appears to have increased its support slightly, attracting about 27% to 28%.

Unlike in the 1990s, Italian voters seem to have been “immunised” against political misconduct. Or, perhaps, it is just that anti-corruption voters have nowhere to go now, so they are forced to stay put.

The ConversationBe that as it may, what is certain is that a general election is coming by next spring. Whether one of the main parties or blocks will be able to govern without some sort of unnatural “grand” coalition becoming a necessity may well depend on the mechanics of whatever electoral law is adopted (a crucial question that parties are debating right now). And there is no guarantee that the matter will be resolved any time soon.

Could the Five Star Movement be Italy’s Next Government?

Amid a series of important elections in Europe — The Netherlands in March, France this month, the UK in June, and Germany in September — Italy may take its place. What could that vote mean for the country and for the European Union? Dr. Daniele Albertazzi considers the possibilities on the London School of Economics’ EUROPP Blog:

With a general election due to be held in Italy before next spring, the media are assessing the likelihood that the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S, Five Star Movement) may form the country’s next government. Some recent polls show the party enjoying the support of over 32% of the electorate, which would make it the largest party. Its nearest competitor, the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), has 26.8%, although the situation is very much in flux.

Throughout 2016, international media focused on the M5S’ criticism of Europe and the euro, peddling a narrative whereby Italy was about to deliver a mortal blow to the European project. This claim was much repeated before the constitutional referendum held in the country in December, after which — despite Italians rejecting the constitutional reform that was on offer and despite its proponent Matteo Renzi resigning from his job as Prime Minister — nothing much happened, either to Italy or indeed the EU.

Now the question on everyone’s mind, is whether the M5S will be able to form a government for the first time in its brief history. The short answer to this is that even the experts on Italian politics cannot make any sensible predictions right now.

The Known and Unknown

Consider just the known unknowns. First on the list is the date of the election itself – the only certainty being that it will be held before the spring of 2018. The second unknown is the electoral law that will be used in the elections – something Parliament is looking into as we speak, with the likelihood that the new electoral law will have a strong element of proportionality.

If this is the case, then it is far from certain that the M5S will have the numbers to govern on its own after the election, or manage to create a governing coalition with others. Even if it did, it would need to change the Constitution before holding a referendum on Italy’s membership of the euro. Would the M5S take this perilous path not long after Italians have voted to keep the Constitution as it is? Very unlikely.

And then there are the things we know we know, although they do not help predicting the election outcome. The first on the list is that Matteo Renzi is back with a vengeance, on course to being elected leader of his party for a second time. He will most likely be the PD’s candidate for the Premiership.

Renzi may have lost the December referendum, but his side, the Yes camp, still attracted more than 40% of the vote on a decent turnout of 65%. Granted, not all of these people will vote for the PD in an election, but this remains a decent result to build upon in a forthcoming campaign, for a party already attracting about 30% of the national vote.

The second thing we know is that the right is in disarray, and has been since the fall of the last Berlusconi Government in 2011. Forza Italia is a spent force waiting for some Godot to save it from its founder Silvio Berlusconi. Polls suggest that it may gain as little as 12% of the vote in the forthcoming election, down from about 20% in 2013 and 38% in 2008. The party’s crisis is deep-seated, and a repeat of the media stunts for which Berlusconi was known in the past will not suffice to resolve it.

Leaving aside that, for legal reasons, Berlusconi will be very unlikely to run for the premiership in the forthcoming elections, he has not taken any credible initiatives in years and lacks a strategy to re-launch the centre-right electoral alliance. He would be well advised to step aside and leave the leadership of both his party and a renewed centre-right alliance to someone else, but there is no sign for the moment that he is willing to do this. Further complicating matters, Matteo Salvini – the leader of the Lega Nord (LN – Northern League), the most important party to have governed with Forza Italia – has ruled out taking part in a coalition led by Berlusconi and has put himself forward as the would-be leader of the centre-right.

With the LN also doing well in the polls – attracting more than 12% of the vote in contrast to the 4% it gained in 2013 – the party’s support may well be essential for the creation of any centre-right government in the foreseeable future. Salvini’s LN has gone through a process of reinvention in the last few years. From being a regionalist populist movement trying to achieve some degree of autonomy for northern Italian regions, the LN has transitioned into a nationalist party focusing on the whole of Italy. It is not afraid of collaboration with the likes of Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France and Heinz-Christian Strache’s Freedom Party of Austria, not to mention extreme right organisations in Italy itself.

To fill in the space opened on the right by Forza Italia’s crisis, Salvini has created an organisation called “Noi con Salvini” (NcS – Us with Salvini) which is fighting elections in central and southern Italian regions in which the LN does not normally compete. So far, NcS’ performance has not been impressive, but it remains early days and it is impossible to predict the future for the organisation. Salvini’s popularity remains buoyant among centre-right voters, bringing a further element of uncertainty in the country’s political landscape.

It would be wise to leave predictions about the outcome to astrologers and to avoid crying wolf about Grillo’s M5S again — but, in amid fraught predictions about the European project, I am not optimistic that this is going to happen.

Beppo Grillo, the comedian who became leader of the Five Star Movement (Claudio Bisegni)

Italy Analysis: Rome, Not Europe, Makes or Breaks the Five Star Movement

On 9 January, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe rejected a request from Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S) to join the group in the European Parliament. Dr. Daniele Albertazzi evaluates the significance of this move in a piece for the LSE’s EUROPP site. His assessment is that, while the incident is embarrassing for the Five Star Movement at the European level, the party’s priority will be maintaining its anti-establishment appeal among Italian voters:

The failed attempt of the leader of Italy’s Five Star Movement (M5S), Beppe Grillo, failed attempt to leave Nigel Farage’s group in the European Parliament (the EFDD) and join the Liberals of ALDE took everyone by surprise. This includes the M5S’s own MPs, who had not been consulted on the move. After all, as the media have reminded us for months, the M5S wants to call a referendum on Italy’s membership of the Euro, while ALDE is among the most Europhile groups in the EP. In the end, it was a rebellion by ALDE’s own MEPs that put an end to the attempt, despite M5S members approving the move by a large margin in an online vote.

There is no denying that this whole saga has left the Five Star Movement out in the cold looking directionless. Somewhat unconvincingly, it blamed the “establishment” for what had happened.

The attempt to join ALDE appears to have been driven by Grillo’s willingness to retain influence and the many benefits (including financial ones) that are part and parcel of belonging to a group in the European Parliament (EP), given that the EFDD may soon reach the end of the road. The UK is about to lose its representation in the European Parliament following Brexit, and that will include the UK Independence Party’s MEPs. Having been rejected by the Greens, the M5S tried to find a new home within ALDE.

One should not read too much into Grillo’s decision, however, nor overestimate its consequences. It is very unlikely that this move was meant to signal a change of direction for Grillo’s party, and push it towards more “moderate” and Europhile positions — something ALDE’s MEPs appear to have grasped.

Few voters in Italy know which European Parliament group their party belongs to; on the other hand, however, and more importantly, the evidence shows that there is still some huge political space in the country for anti-establishment, anti-corruption parties attacking the “casta” (that is, the political elite). Trust in political parties and institutions such as the government, which has always been low, is at rock bottom, and the governing Democratic Party needs to find a new purpose after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s recent resignation.

The ideology of Grillo’s party has always been a collage of ideas from both left and right: the eclecticism shown in recent days is anything but new. Those within the party see this as its main strength, and indeed proof that the M5S has positioned itself beyond, or perhaps above, what are regarded by many as the outdated categories of left and right.

Grillo has certainly been creative in mixing the defence of small businesses, protectionism and harsh words on illegal immigration – all meant to please his right-wing supporters – with the environmentalism and calls for direct democracy that appeal to the left. But what has kept the various M5S factions together, at least so far, have been the attacks against the casta, and the call for traditional parties to be swept away by a bottom-up revolution, facilitated by the internet.

Unfortunately for the M5S, however, these calls to “clean-up politics” have started to ring increasingly hollow in recent months, following developments in Rome. Having won the mayoralty of the city — together with Turin and other smaller cities — following the local elections of June 2016, the M5S spent the following six months looking clueless as to what to do in power, and has been beset by a series of scandals and investigations. These have forced several people within the party’s governing team to resign amidst accusations of corruption, with some even being arrested.


The Mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi

Arguably, this is the really important issue the M5S needs to address, and quickly. Entertaining as recent events have certainly been, what EP group Grillo’s party belongs to is a side-show for voters, and it is not going to be at the top of their agenda for very long.

It is, of course, always challenging for a radical populist party to move from opposition into government; however, what a party like the M5S cannot afford to do is to lose the only glue that has kept it together so far: its “purity”. For a populist party in government – whether at the national or the local level – to start resembling the mainstream parties that it has spent years attacking and accusing of incompetence and corruption is tantamount to writing a suicide note.

In other words, for all the inconsistencies, lack of coherence and ideological “creativity” which the M5S has got us accustomed to, what cannot change is the party’s anti-establishment nature. The M5S will be judged by the electorate on the basis of how it performs in local government, not only in Rome, but also in Turin and other smaller cities. While it can make a fool of itself in Strasbourg, it simply cannot afford to fail in Italy’s capital.