When the League and the Five Star Movement finally agreed to form a government last year after months of faltering talks, many doubted that the shotgun marriage of two parties from opposite ends of the political spectrum – with little in common aside from being nominally ‘anti-establishment’ – would long endure.
And to be sure, the fact that their union has even lasted this long is a testament to the frustration that many Italians felt toward the center-left and center-right parties in the aftermath of buffoonish antics of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s longest serving post-war ruler, and the ineffectual reign of Matteo Renzi.
But Matteo Salvini’s confrontational approach to the Italian migrant crisis – including his controversial decisions to turn away boats loaded with refugees – has caused support for his right-wing, anti-immigrant League party to surge. At the same time, M5s, led by Salvini’s deputy prime minister Luigi Di Maio, has grown increasingly antagonistic, most recently supporting the ouster of a key Salvini advisor over allegations of corruption.
The growing rift, which has intensified as Salvini and Di Maio took shots at one another in the Italian press, also fueled speculation that Salvini might soon reach for the nuclear option: Calling another general election to try and capitalize on the League’s soaring popularity to ditch M5S, and form a new conservative coalition, perhaps with the very same establishment figure that enabled Salvini’s rise in the first place.
According to Bloomberg, which cited several reports in the local press, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who had no experience in government before being brought in as prime minister to lead the new ‘government of change’, suspects that Salvini might be plotting to topple the government.
Adding to the pressure on Salvini, Berlusconi has been active in the press accusing Five Star of deliberately undermining Salvini despite everything the League leader has done to hold the coalition together.
Support for Salvini has soared since the new government formally took power in June. But over the past week, he has suffered a series of defeats, first when Conte moved to oust Armando Siri, the League undersecretary and advisor, and again when plans for a private bailout of Italian lender Banca Carige after BlackRock pulled out. The Salvini-led coalition of nationalist MEPs vying for seats in the European Parliament is set to make big gains during elections later this month.
— POLITICO Poll of Polls (@pollofpolls_EU) May 13, 2019
Adding a sense of urgency to Salvini’s deliberations, Five Star, which is beginning to look more like a rival to the League than a partner, won two runoff elections in Sicily, while two League-backed candidates lost two other races.
All of this is happening as the prospects for Italian growth continue to deteriorate. The European Commission recently issued revised growth projections that would place the Italian budget deficit well beyond the 2.04% agreed to by the Italian government and Brussels late last year. This could make financing all of the generous social programs proposed by M5S untenable.
Di Maio has attacked Salvini’s plan to try and stop migrant rescue ships from approaching Italian ports, slamming it as a “provocation” and a power grab.
Currently, the transportation ministry, which is led by an M5S minister, is in charge of these policies. Salvini and Di Maio have also clashed over a cardinal’s decision to restore power to a state-owned building housing hundreds of homeless people.
In an interview with Rai2 TV, Salvini cheered on Berlusconi ahead of the European elections later this month.
“Good luck for this battle which, in Europe, I think we’ll be able to fight on the same front; because in the name of jobs, security, health, the environment and the family, I hope something will change also in Europe, if the left is finally out of power.”
The tensions within the ruling coalition could intensify ahead of a cabinet meeting next week, where the League and M5S are expected to unveil their (presumably very different) policy platforms.
All of the instability and uncertainty is beginning to bleed over into Italian bond markets, sending yields back toward their highs from the thick of the conflict with Brussels.