Who will pull the plug?

The armed peace in the yellow-green majority could live on even after weeks of tensions, but with other characters in charge

Italy's Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio gestures next to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini after the sworn-in ceremony at the Quirinal palace in Rome, Italy, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli
Italy's Minister of Labor and Industry Luigi Di Maio gestures next to Interior Minister Matteo Salvini after the sworn-in ceremony at the Quirinal palace in Rome, Italy, June 1, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

"I hope that after 26 May things will be back to normal". The deputy prime minister of the Five Star Movement (5SM) Luigi Di Maio vented his frustration in this way just a week before the European vote, referring to his government ally of the League. This was thus the culmination of the electoral campaign that everyone had been expected to be more low key and had instead highlighted the fundamental incoherence of a majority in which the partners were so much at odds.

Luigi Di Maio had never been so forthright. "They keep barking up the same tree, all they talk about is migrants and when they're lost for words, they shoot their mouth off". After weeks of repeated attacks left unanswered, the Labour and Economic Development hyper-minister had thrown caution to the wind and answered Matteo Salvini's latest provocation with a liberating outburst. The day before, the League leader had learnt live on TV of the latest landing in Lampedusa, 47 people recovered at sea by Sea Watch 3 without his authorisation, and not knowing who to single out he ventured to blame the Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli, of the 5SM.

This breach of the artificial non-belligerence agreement had led Di Maio to call for a return to normality, to when the two deputy prime ministers lived in harmony and kept exchanging glances of mutual understanding via the press. Like last November, when Di Maio claimed he "had blind faith" in Salvini and talked to him "ten times a day". Only four month later, after the first serious fall out with the League over the 5 Star Movements historic battle against the TAV rail link in Val di Suda, Di Maio said he only trusted Conte.

It's always been blatantly obvious that the marriage between the League and the 5SM was one of convenience, which would clearly last so long as it was convenient for both parties. And despite the huge result that Salvini's party had achieved at the elections, it's wrong to believe that the League has won out or that it has ruled the political agenda during the first year of government. Among the provisions that have been passed so far, the two sides have come out even in terms of what they've brought to the table. But what's more the two parties, after extended negotiations with the European Commission on the budget, have both brought home the two cornerstone measures of their respective pre-electoral platforms, the citizen's income and  the "quota 100" pension reform. 

So, what went wrong? The forced resignation of Armando Siri definitely soured things for the League, ahead in the polls at the time. It was a given that the 5SM electorate, despite the government alliance, would have had it in for any undersecretary and economic councillor of the political leader indicted for corruption. Both Salvini and Di Maio began to pressure Conte, with a view to having the undersecretary kept on or removed. With the forced dismissal edging closer, the dams broke and the League initiated reprisals by launching its first explicit attack on a 5SM member of the government, the Defence Minister Elisabetta Trenta.

The pretext was a 'tweet by the ministry in which it congratulated the Italian Navy for salvaging Italian fish trawlers under siege by the Libyans. An operation that hadn't actually taken place: tricked by an incorrect press release, the ministry tried to remove the incorrect tweet immediately, but not fast enough for it to go unnoticed by the Ministry of the Interior. Sources close to Salvini then contacted the press stating that the Italian armed forces deserved better. For the Movement this was overstepping an institutional red line, and its blog reported it as an unprecedented attack and the exploitation of institutions for electoral gain. An exasperated Trenta told the Corriere della Sera on 10 May that a daily battle was being waged with Salvini.

Shortly before the attack on Toninelli that led Di Maio's call for a return to normality, another of the League's front men, Giancarlo Giorgetti, had stirred things up by stating that Conte was taking sides. The Prime Minister replied that "institutional communications" had to be restored, a pompous term he continued to refer to subsequently. The message was clear: the Prime Minister's unbiasedness and actions must never be called into question.

This crisis born out of the unrest triggered by Siri's forced resignations and heightened by the League's attacks on the 5 star ministers, was partly remedied by a press conference called by Conte on 3 June, the content of which was unknown for a day and which followed a new attack by Salvini, this time levelled at Toninelli following the cruise ship accident in Venice.

Conte's press conference was a renewal of the marriage vows that had never been so strained since the traumatic event of the elections, which had certified that a balance between the two had come unstuck that many believed was on the rocks already. Even though not in absolute terms given the different levels of voter attendance, the figures clearly signalled the 5 Star Movement's collapse in favour of the League: the League had risen from 17.3% to 33.6% while Grillo's men were down from 32.7% to 16.7% in just one year.

Having ripped Maya's veil on the balanced government, Conte placed his own fate in the hands of his deputies, telling them that a condition had to be met if the government was to continue: the end of Salvini's endless campaigning against his government ally. Conte called for his own remit, such as negotiations with the EU, and that of the other ministers, be respected, in the name of that 'institutional communication' that was essential for trust to preserved.

If the crisis appeared to have been sedated, now Salvini would seem to have the advantage, meaning that he can call it a day whenever he chooses. Di Maio on the other hand has to play catch up, and clearly fears the dissolution of parliament. But in actual fact, bringing the government down is not always dependent on political will, as it is often regulated by institutional procedures.

Right now the window of opportunity to dissolve the houses of parliament is pretty small. It's almost impossible to vote in September, because campaigning on the beaches can be very draining for all concerned. It's also difficult to head into a vote with the budget under discussion, especially if this government wishes to make it its own and considering that the 30 billion required to avoid an unpopular rise in VAT still have to be found.

The time to put pressure on Grillo's men should therefore be in spring 2020 and could last until spring 2021; that summer marks the start of the white semester the precedes the end of Mattarella's seven year mandate during which time the houses cannot be dissolved. And if the legislature lasts up to the election of the new president, at that point the likelihood that the legislation goes the distance is almost a foregone conclusion, seeing as with the new rules the members of both houses enjoy a full pension after four and a half years in the job.

The fact that the legislation might go the full distance doesn't mean that the current government will too. There are three variables in the equation of the yellow-green majority: the contract, the composition of the executive and its leadership. Tinkering with the first two variables would mean opening Pandora's box in terms of the damage caused to the winners of the 2018 elections. On the other hand what might help to keep the unnatural union between the League and the 5SM alive could be a change of leadership, currently held by a figure close to the Movement but still just a guarantor. Then the majority would stay the same, but its leadership would become more political. Or perhaps other central figures, that also currently play a more guarantor than a political role, such as the Foreign Affairs or the Finance ministers.


This article is also published in the July/August issue of eastwest.

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