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Post Italy's Political Crisis 2019: Who Won and Who Lost?
Created by John Eipper on 09/11/19 4:02 AM

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Italy's Political Crisis 2019: Who Won and Who Lost? (Luciano Dondero, Italy, 09/11/19 4:02 am)

The new "yellow-red" government (YRG) of Movimento 5 Stelle, Partito Democratico and LEU has overcome its first hurdle (a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies on Monday and in the Senate on Tuesday). It's time perhaps for a initial balance-sheet, offering an answer to the question: Who won and who lost?

Rumors to the effect that the YRG might be toppled in the Senate were mere wishful thinking.

The protest demonstration by Fratelli d'Italia in front of Parliament on Monday, which the Lega of Salvini decided to join in the last few days, was already a clear indication that things would go well for the YRG--had the protesters felt that things could go otherwise, they should have been busy inside Parliament.

These two parties, together with Berlusconi's Forza Itallia, are clearly the big losers.

Actually, the right-wing coalition lost last year, when they got 37% of the votes together, only 3 percentage points shy of the critical 40% threshold which gives a coalition an automatic majority of seats in Parliament. And then, they were not even given a chance to try and set up a government of their own, which they might have done perhaps by "winning" (ie. buying) a few more supporters behind the scenes...

Instead, in 2018 President Mattarella opened a series of consultations with the political parties represented in Parliament, which went on and on and on; finally, he decided to set up a "technical government" headed by Carlo Cottarelli, and when this was on the verge of been installed, there was an unexpected breakthrough: Salvini had the Lega break with its coalition partners, and join forces with the M5S. That coalition did have just about the numbers to forge a new government. More weeks were spent hammering a peculiar "contract" (the word in Italian refers only to a business agreement) between the two partners, excluding Fratelli d'Italia, who was busy trying to get in.

It's true that the M5S kept open a backdoor for a deal with the PD, but this was stopped by Renzi. The former Prime minister and former head of the PD, who since 2018 dubs himself "just a regular Senator," was still a powerful figure, commanding the bulk of PD MPs/Senators, and he denounced such a perspective up and down the line, essentially foreclosing any such agreement.

The 2019 political crisis, and the change of government arose out of Salvini's misjudgement of the situation.
For 14 months Salvini had ridden roughshod over Di Maio, the figurehead "political leader of the M5S," and felt that there was no potential resistance there.

He did not count on Beppe Grillo's resurfacing, declaring Salvini "untrustworthy," and calling for a deal with the PD, and promoting Conte as the best politician of the M5S.

Di Maio lost very big.

While he was given the Foreign Ministry as a sop, he lost the Deputy premiership, and is clearly no longer in charge of the M5S in any way, shape or form.

His official declaration that Salvini's Lega had offered him the Premiership--and for this he profusely thanked them, while refusing--did nothing but prove how little he really matters in Italian politics, just a poor Pinocchio, a puppet in the hands of the grown-ups.

Salvini also misjudged the level of control of PD secretary Zingaretti over his own party. Zingaretti also lost.
Who won?

Premier Conte, President Mattarella, Grillo and Renzi, in different ways and at different levels, are the winners of this match.

Conte had spent 14 months in the whirlpool of his two Deputy Premiers (Salvini and Di Maio) as the "King Log" of Aesop's Fables.  At best an arbiter, at worst a mere puppet in their hands.  Now he is a recognised political figure, the real decisive head of the YRG.

Mattarella has succeeded in reasserting the centrality of the institutions, in the first place the Parliament, over the "direct channels" of the social media linking Salvini with "the Italian populace." He has also been proven right in retrospect in his reluctance a year ago to go ahead with the previous cabinet, the "yellow-green alliance."
In an interesting, if minor way, Mattarella has also won, in his demand that the parties reach an agreement quickly and on the basis of a political programme--thus, this potentially complicated political crisis took only a month to be settled, instead of the almost three that it took last year.

Grillo has won in regaining control of the M5S, stopping any attempt at reconciliation with Salvini, and opening the doors to an agreement with the PD. However, this may be a pyrrhic victory. Forming a government together with the PD is in many ways a break with the original raison d'etre of the M5S, and some people around Casaleggio are quitting and denouncing this "betrayal." Surely Grillo has a plan, gobbling up the PD, and were that party under the leadership of Zingaretti he would probably succeed.

But, here comes the fourth and most relevant winner of all, Matteo Renzi.

A year ago, Renzi had killed any chance of a PD deal with the M5S. And therefore it was a political shock when in August 2019 the very same Renzi took apart Salvini's plans for new elections, by essentially proposing precisely a coalition between the PD and the M5S.

To gauge how abrupt an about-face this was, just consider that in July 2019 the Renzi supporters in the PD had pushed through a unanimous vote in the party leadership to oppose any alliance with the M5S. And in actual fact PD secretary Zingaretti initially rejected Renzi's ouverture, but was compelled to backtrack once he realised that only a minority in the PD leadership were to go to new elections.

Why did Renzi do such an about-face in his approach to the M5S?

The extraordinary progress of Grillo's creature, which in 2013 rejected a government with the PD led by Bersani, and in 2018 became the first party with a whopping 32% in the general elections, was mainly achieved at the expense of the PD.

To ally with the M5S in 2018 would have really meant a capitulation for the PD. This was clear to Renzi--but not to the majority of PDers who had just elected Zingaretti as the new party secretary.

For a year Renzi argued that Salvini's Lega and Grillo/Casaleggio/Di Maio's M5S were equally dangerous, and that any idea that there was a right/left division between them was wrong.

In 2019, however, something was different.

In the first place, the relative weight of the Lega and the M5S has shifted--and most of the votes lost by the M5S in various regional elections, and notably in the vote for the European parliament in 2019 went to the Lega.  The M5S going down to 17% and the Lega up to 34%.

Minister of the Interior Salvini spent many months invading the fields and competences of his colleagues up and down the line, but clearly that was not enough for him. His delusion of grandeur reached the point of demanding for himself "special powers"--i.e. outside of the regular Constitutional norms of checks and balances, which are crucial for a democracy.

And then, instead of continuing his game of hide and seek with this allies, Salvini decided to go for broke, tabling a motion of no-confidence in Conte's government, with the arrogant conceit that new elections would be called pronto, and hey, in a couple of months he would in charge of a new government!

This took many people by surprise, as Salvini had just won about two important topics--the government passed his "security2" law, and parliament voted in favor of the High speed train.

Renzi was the first (or maybe the second, possibly Grillo beat him to this) to realise that this was unthinkable, and that it should be stopped, no matter what.

A small glimpse of a different perspective had been shown a few weeks before in the European parliament, where an Italian majority of M5S, Forza Italia and PD had supported the candidate to the European Commission put forward by the current coalition, ie. the German Ursula Von Leyden. The Lega voting against.

In 2019 the M5S is a party in big trouble. It has lost plenty of voters. Unlike in 2018, an alliance with the PD is not necessarily going to be favorable to the M5S. It is significant that the new YRG also includes LEU, with their young president Speranza as minister of health. Berlusconi's Forza Italia is wrong in saying that this is "the government of the three lefts," regarding the M5S as "leftists in disguise" (which they are not)--but to say that the YRG is the most left-wing in the history of Italy is not too far off the mark, they should just add "since 1948."

So, taking all this into account, Renzi was right in pushing for a change of tack; he also proved who really is on top of the PD right now--and conversely that showed Zingaretti's weakness and inability to control the PD.
Salvini's error of judgement can thus be simply put: he wrongly believed that Di Maio and Zingaretti were capable of deciding what the M5S and the PD would do or not do--while the real power was in the hands of, respectively, Grillo and Renzi.

His error was something that Antonio Gramsci had warned against almost a century ago: "Whenever you are dealing with your opponents, you should take into account the best of them and the best of their arguments, and not the weaker ones." (Not an exact quote, but close).

Salvini is trying to keep up his game of "I am the biggest and strongest macho in town," by asserting that the YRG was made in Brussels, i.e. it's a plot against true-blooded Italians.

That's funny: didn't he announce that he and his sovereignist friends would win big in Europe this year?

However, while the Lega fared very well here, Salvini's allies in Europe did not do so equally well, and the European commission remains in the hands of the Popular/Socialist coalition, with the addition of the Liberal Democrats, who are, if anything, even more pro-European and anti-sovereignist.

And right now, Italy in Europe is in a better position. There is a good chance that the new Economy minister Gualtieri (a PD EuroMP, and the former leading member of the Europarliament finance commission), and the new Italian member of the European Commission, Gentiloni (former Foreign Minister and former PM, now in charge of the European commission economic portfolio, also a PDer), and the new German head of the Commission, Ursula von Leyden (CDU), will produce more favorable results for Italy than all the bombastic games of Salvini.
Thus, Europe and Italy might also come out of this Italian crisis as the winners.

Salvini is right now compounding his mistakes, by threatening Berlusconi: "The Lega will go to the new elections alone" [ie, not as part of the center-right coalition]--and by not distancing himself from those fascists who went to the demo on Monday in front of Parliament to raise their right arm in the fascist salute ["saluto romano"].

Does Salvini really think that he can win an election alone, and get "special powers" by appearing soft on fascism?
Is showing a red cape a good idea, if you have just stumbled and fallen to the ground in front of an enraged bull?

JE comments:  Nicely done, Luciano.  You've put your finger on a perfect illustration of politics and strange bedfellows:  M5S, founded on its "f-you" stance towards the establishment, now rules in a coalition with, well, the establishment.  Renzi must be sitting proud.  Do you think he'll return someday as PM?


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