The Italian Re(in)volution of August

by Rebecca Farulli

In this blog piece, WZB intern Rebecca Farulli (Sant’Anna School of Advance Studies – University of Trento) offers a picture over the recent government crisis in Italy and the road ahead for the current political coalition born out of it in contrasting far-right narratives and electoral success.

L’aula della Camera in occasione dell’iniziativa “Montecitorio a porte aperte”. Roma 9 novembre 2014. ANSA/ANGELO CARCONI

8th of August

Matteo Salvini decides to risk it all. He opts out of the government and calls for new elections, deciding to go with the flow of requests coming from that ‘real’ authentic Lega that pressured him for months to have a break-up with Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S). The present crisis did not come out of the blue: many were sensing it, fearing it; many longing for it; still, it was a peculiar choice: why was such a bold move planned in such an unusual and unprecedented timeframe? The opportunities to end the government experience anytime else were never missed; one inevitably comes to wonder about the recondite strategy of such timing. What did it change for the Lega’s Secretary? Was this, as many say, a choice dictated from the mere desire to capitalize a seemingly ever-growing consensus?

7th of August

The day of the very last parliamentary voting session, the triggering day of the crisis. Matter on the agenda: the high-speed train Turin-Lyon (Tav). M5S votes against, Lega in favor. The sign of two increasingly different visions for the country. Or at least, this is how the result was presented. A casus belli, nonetheless. Without the European elections and the national polls, we probably would have never had a crisis: it cannot either be explained only with Salvini’s intention to end a government which maintained just 13% of its promises and with a Parliament that worked less than in any other legislature – so much for the highly celebrated “culture of doing” (cultura del fare). The Tav was just an alibi. A more solid reason may rather be the missed deal on the northern autonomy, but we could only dare to say that. The perspective of cutting the number of MPs had its weight, too. Salvini feared the delay of a possible election date, not to mention that an election after the reform would have reduced the number of representatives in the parliament: the planned electoral reform would not have facilitated things for him. Then, there was the thorny issue of the budget bill for 2020, a matter that would have cost anyone doing it a high political price. Opting for a government crisis worked for Salvini in a twofold way: in case of a new provisory coalition, Lega would not have been the one reviewing the bill, while in case of elections, and of victory, working on the budget post-vote, with closed ballot boxes and all, would have been a much safer bet.

Open windows

Which were the conceivable scenarios in the first phase of the crisis? Matteo Salvini was strong with his 39% in polls, which rendered a completely reversed picture compared to that of March 2018, when the M5S was the stronger counterpart (32%); nonetheless, the seat composition of 2019 was still representing that situation: M5S still had the majority in the Parliament, with Lega counting only for its 17% of votes obtained in March. New elections, given the barnstorming projections, could have meant, for Salvini and his Lega, to aim at an absolute majority of the seats. But how? The League would have needed the support of the smaller Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) to have such a majority; the decision of whether to let Lega run solo or not was a delicate one, one of a gambling nature. Never, from 1994 on, we have witnessed the case of a party seeking the absolute majority of seats without running as part of a coalition. With the current electoral system, it is quite difficult to imagine starting-up from an only-predicted 35% of votes to aim at 50% of the seats, where one would need at least 40% of the proportional seats and 70% of the uninominal ones. Quite a tall order.

20th of August

The D-day for the consultations in the Senate. After Conte’s resignation, there were still multiple options: the proposal for a Conte second mandate (“Conte bis”) with a government reshuffle; a new majority between M5S and the Democratic Party (PD); a technic or an institutional government; still on the plate, early elections. The following days were hectic, juggling between political and technical deadlines, those that Italy has with the EU; those related to the new budget bill and the MP cut, a cut which was still on hold then and which will result in the worst political representation ratio in Europe. Salvini’s plan seemed to be working; until that point; until something he probably thought unrealistic happened: M5S and PD bound in a quite paradoxical political marriage, a coalition that, despite its peculiarity, worked in overcoming the crisis.

A green game (over)? 

Salvini’s goal of an early election was not achieved. The green captain’s choice, at the moment, rather cost him and his party a free fall in consensus: polls showed a loss of 7 points, dropping from the 38% of early August to the 3% of early September, as if, in the end, the real victim of this crisis would have been the one pushing for it in the first place. Even if the votes of the new inedited yellow-red agreement (46%) were inferior to those of the precedent yellow-green one (55%), still, Italians seemed happy of such a turn. Was then the case for decreeing a “green game over”? Not quite yet, and recent polls proved this point. Despite everything, Lega is still anchored as the first party in Italy and the doubts about the survival chances of this PD-M5S new coalition are not unjustified. Italy is, in fact, quite a political lab and often surprising enough. There are, still, the extremes of a future hold for this newly-wed PD-M5S couple. Still, these past few months were only a start, where what is ahead will be an uphill road of crucial crossroads. A lot of the survival chances of this new government depend on the international position and the European relations but also by the dynamics that will play between the main rampant free spirits of the game: Di Maio, Renzi, and Salvini.


Di Maio transformed the match over the choice of the M5S’s undersecretaries completing the government squad into a crusade. Not to mention the very unorthodox get-together he had at the Farnesina, the official home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with ‘his’ 5S ministers after being nominated minister. The message was pretty clear: a very political meeting in a location representing Italy in the whole world to remark a renovated central role for the young M5S front-runner and his party.

Matteo Renzi. Curious case. He was the one paving the way to the idea of a PD-M5S Conte-bis government to limit and combat the “full powers” evoked and sought by Salvini. Then, he prepared a PD internal schism. Of course, support to the present government, which, by the way, just recently saw a number of Renzi devotees nominated undersecretaries, is not a matter of discussion. But the whole operation did not come without consequences for the future of the left and the government. And with the birth of this new formation, premier Giuseppe Conte has to deal with another rough triplet within the government, that formed by Zingaretti, PD’s Secretary-General, Di Maio and Renzi, who somehow finally has back a voice over the executive’s choices. But Renzi is firmly convinced: he is an alternative and he does not want to die “grillino” (denomination for M5S base). The support to the new government comes only as the answer to a democratic emergency. Proper alliances are another thing.

Matteo Salvini. Another one who thinks he is the alternative and that does not want to die “grillino” either. Did we ever think he was going to cool things down a little bit? Well, freed from the stiff arena of official positions’ responsibilities, he is quite opening his heart now. The 2019 annual Lega gathering of Pontida held on September 14th and 15th was perceived by many as a reassurance over the strength and the still-solid hold of the League. For sure, it rendered the picture of a refreshed and reinvigorated Salvini. With the slogan “the courage of being free”, he called for a government of the people; he promised a change against ‘palace plots’. Now more than ever, he seems to be preparing an active effective opposition. No more reference to South-North divides, no more Celtics or Padania symbols among his supporters. The Italian tricolor and the rosary are the new must-haves in this fight over Italy.

The road ahead. Between “Sardines” and a new Lega momentum 

The present government coalition was born in turmoil; its first steps seemed frail and tentative, but they remarkably showed a strong will for a multi-partisan response to a national crisis. Despite all the differences, PD and M5S decided to give it a try and make it work out for the sake of stability and a different political direction. And despite all the internal differences, this is a government that has some cards to play. Compared to its immediate predecessor, for instance, it is strong of a different, better, political climate in the dialogue with the EU and financial markets, as changed is the attitude of one of its components, the M5S, towards them both: the decision to vote for Ursula Von Der Leyen was the signal of a 5S Movement that is paving the way for its institutionalization, a Movement that is changing its profile. In its first-ever government experience, M5S was indeed forced to face reality and, we could say, grow up. And this is a factor that should be taken from the coalition parties as a grounding point, one from which to put aside past resentments and polemical stamina to focus on concrete common solutions.

This is a government that is for the nation, contextually born to stop divisive narratives and policies. Players should stop and think once and for all about a vision for the country and agree on that. The recent flop in the regional elections of Umbria, from which instead Salvini’s party comes reinvigorated, should not be taken as a final sentence over the government’s work but, for sure, as a wake-up call and food for thought: a sign that certain behaviors – the continuous fights and internal fractures of the weeks upcoming the elections did not help for sure – are mining the credibility of this political marriage. And Lega keeps being the winner of it all. Do we want to offer it the chance of being our champion against these that, at this point, really may start to seem mere ‘palace plots’?

Lega for sure has a vision for the country; it has its vision and it is sticking to that, presenting itself as a clear-cut decision-maker; as a solid, consistent and reliable representative; a security provider. But, notwithstanding the numbers of steady support, increasingly sturdy is the fervor that is lately coming out against it. “Sardines”, this is the name of this new wave of protests. After Bologna and Modena, 40.000 people are expected to manifest in Florence against Lega’s narratives at the end of November, with many other cities preparing as well.  

Now, people have a vision too. They are shouting it out loud. Political passions, civil commitment is spilling all over. Now, it would be something to have a government able to offer the chance, for these voices, to be constructively represented, applied and not simply gone with the wind of factionalism and electoral plays. This is a time of momentum for Italy, whose civil society is going back to mobilization and more active militance. We always used to say that Italy was a country of “seduti”, of unresponsive and accepting, literally, of “seated” people. Now, this could be an actual chance to reopen a fertile ground for public debate, to focus on implementing and actualizing alternative inclusive plans for the country.

Holding a bachelor’s degree in Political and Social Philosophy from the University of Florence, Rebecca Farulli is currently a master student of International Security Studies in the joint program offered by the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the University of Trento. She wrote this article in the framework of a research period spent at the WZB’s Department of Democracy and Democratization, where she researched the contemporary political situation in Italy.


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