At a closed-door meeting on Aug. 6, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s advisers told the populist politician that he was trapped in an unproductive coalition government and should bring it down.
The next day, Salvini told Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was pulling his League Party out of its ruling alliance with the Five Star Movement (M5S), hoping to trigger an election that would return him to power as the unquestioned leader of a new government.
The League’s euroskeptic leader, riding high in the opinion polls thanks to his hard line on immigration, had just made a major miscalculation.
Illustration: Louise Ting
According to five sources, including League economic chief Claudio Borghi, Salvini’s plan rested on the two beliefs that Conte would promptly resign, and that the M5S and the opposition Democratic Party would be unable to bury their deep-rooted mutual enmity to join forces against him.
Salvini was wrong on both counts.
Italy’s once-dominant politician, known as “The Captain” by his followers, is on the verge of opposition wilderness, a mere spectator as the M5S and the center-left Democratic Party form a government without him.
A master at galvanizing the masses with his fiery rhetoric and social media savvy, Salvini’s dramatic reversal of fortune shows that he lacked a similar mastery of the political cut-and-thrust in the corridors of power in Rome.
Despite this summer’s chastening experience, Salvini is still a potent political force and could be back — especially if a new M5S/ Democratic Party government proves short-lived.
Borghi said that Salvini resisted internal party pressure to trigger elections, including from Borghi himself, but eventually relented at the meeting last month.
“Lots of us were telling him he had to bring down the government, even though we know there were risks,” said Borghi, who attended the Aug. 6 gathering.
Salvini’s plot to ditch the M5S and win power alone after months of bickering over economic policies and relations with the EU, started to go wrong from the start when Conte declined to relinquish power.
That was not what Salvini had expected.
A senior League source said that Salvini’s low-profile No. 2, Giancarlo Giorgetti, a kingmaker who does much of the party’s back-room power broking, had assured him that Conte would go.
Instead, Conte, a law professor plucked from obscurity to lead the coalition government, showed that he had no intention of returning to academia. Rather than resign, he demanded to know why Salvini wanted to bring down the government and called for a transparent parliamentary debate.
With the Italian parliament on their summer recess, lawmakers first had to be summoned from their holidays — giving them time to come up with a plan to thwart Salvini’s ambitions.
“To bring down the government, he should have withdrawn the League’s ministers from the Cabinet rather than just asking Conte to resign,” said former Italian minister of the interior Roberto Maroni, who preceded Salvini as League leader. “He gave his adversaries time to negotiate and create a new government.”
With Conte sitting tight, the League filed a no-confidence motion in its own government, hoping to topple it as soon as parliament reconvened on Aug. 12.
However, the M5S and many Democratic Party lawmakers were furious about Salvini’s maneuvering and returned determined to check his sprint toward a snap election.
They refused to even schedule Salvini’s no-confidence motion, giving priority instead to the debate demanded by Conte.
“Salvini miscalculated the timing. He wanted a blitzkrieg, but ended up stuck in the trenches,” said Francesco Galietti, head of Policy Sonar, a political risk consultancy in Rome.
Salvini’s gambit last month was not only mistimed because parliament was closed, but also because it meant that any election would have interrupted preparations for next year’s crucial budget.
In Italy, budget season is a drawn-out process that occupies parliament from the start of October until the end of the year. Dissolving the assembly during this period is so taboo that elections have not been held in autumn since 1919.
This handed Salvini’s opponents a perfect excuse to resist his election push.
They said they had to save Italians from a big increase in sales tax that Rome had promised the European Commission that it would enact, unless alternative savings could be found in the budget for next year.
If Salvini had made his move straight after a triumph in May’s European Parliament elections, when the League took 34 percent of the vote, national elections could have been held in July — avoiding the risk of stalling such a key budget.
“Salvini had two windows of opportunity to go for a vote — either right after the EU elections or in early 2020. Last month’s move was nonsense,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling and political analysis firm YouTrend.
However, the option of early next year was no longer viable because Salvini had been boxed into a corner by a reform tabled by the M5S to cut the number of lawmakers, Borghi said.
The change, which was due to be passed in parliament this month, would have led to a lengthy process of redrawing electoral boundaries and a referendum — effectively meaning that parliament could not have been dissolved for two years.
The alliance with the M5S was breaking down and there were particular frustrations with Italian Minister of Economy and Finances Giovanni Tria, Borghi said, adding that Tria is not affiliated to either ruling party, but was keeping the League out of key policy decisions.
Tria was ignoring the League’s demands for big tax cuts and repeatedly made commitments to Brussels for a deficit-cutting budget, which ran counter to the League’s line, Borghi added.
Even worse, M5S leader Luigi Di Maio had switched tack from taking on Brussels with the League to backing Tria in a bid to undermine the League’s constant rise in the polls.
“I told him: ‘Matteo, you have to get rid of Tria, or you have to pull out,’” Borghi said.
Despite the questionable timing, Salvini’s attack might still have come off, but for the decisive return of two figures who had drifted away from the limelight: former Democratic Party prime minister Matteo Renzi and the 71-year-old founder of the M5S, comedian Beppe Grillo.
THE OLD GUARD
Salvini was banking on the M5S’ Di Maio and Democratic Party chief Nicola Zingaretti wanting to fight elections, rather than bury their bitter rivalry and forge an unlikely alliance.
However, when Salvini announced that his coalition with the M5S was dead, Renzi said that elections would be irresponsible and called for a deal with the M5S — a dramatic U-turn for a politician who had always been a fierce enemy of the anti-establishment movement.
A similar chain of events took place within the M5S.
According to a M5S junior minister, Di Maio and most of the party’s leadership did want to go to elections after Salvini pulled the plug on the coalition.
“They didn’t think we could win, but they thought that we could hold up well, that Salvini wouldn’t be able to do what he promised and that we could bounce back in a couple of years,” said the politician, who asked not to be named.
Grillo had other ideas.
The man who founded M5S in 2009 had no intention of seeing his creation destroyed by Salvini at the ballot box.
In an Aug. 10 blog post that took the whole movement by surprise, Grillo said that the M5S had to survive at all costs to save Italy from the “new barbarians” represented by Salvini.
Grillo still wields a huge influence over the M5S’ members and it is almost taboo to oppose him. In additional posts, he urged an alliance with the Democratic Party, despite the reluctance of Di Maio — keeping the door shut on Salvini’s election hopes.
In an online ballot on Tuesday last week, 79.3 percent of M5S supporters voted in favor of joining forces with the Democratic Party, paving the way for Conte to complete work on a new coalition government that would unite the long-time foes.
Asked in a TV interview on Monday last week whether he had made strategic mistakes, Salvini said: “I prefer to be seen as naive than someone who clings to power.”
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