2019 03 – News from Italy

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


The centre-right coalition predictably won the Sardinian Presidential elections on 24th February with Christian Solinas from The Lega Salvini as the main candidate. The first opinion polls in November put The Five Star M5S and the centre-left group almost level in second place. But a massive 32% of M5S’s March 2018 general election votes transferred themselves mostly to the centre-right, so that their candidate slumped to 11.2%. The centre-left took second place with 33.3%, and lost their previous Governorship.

Is it interesting? Well, it might be a small election in European terms but it was a significant one for Italy and a possible preview of the outcome of May’s EU election. It marked not only a further decline for the populist Movement started by Beppe Grillo in 2009, but also a triumph for the right-wing, expansionist Lega‘s Matteo Salvini. Huffington Post vividly described it as a M5S mass-slaughter and ran a photo of Luigi Di Maio with his head in his hands. A blog from journalist Roberto Arditti blamed a (figurative) blow from the pattada, a long, murderous Sardinian knife.

As background, Sardinia is one of the five autonomous regions in Italy. These were established in the Constitution to preserve the cultural and linguistic differences of the three border regions and the two islands of Sardinia and Sicily. Four of the regions retain 60% of the taxes raised while Sardinia keeps 100%.

In order to have a parliamentary majority Luigi Di Maio, the victor in the general election, agreed to govern in coalition with Matteo Salvini. It was immediately obvious that Salvini had the upper hand, because he was forceful, charismatic and, significantly, extremely politically astute.

Two recent events question Di Maio’s sense of judgement and his ability to effectively share government with his coalition partner, Salvini.

Straying into my colleague Froggy’s domain, Di Maio decided to travel to Paris to meet Christof Chalençon of the Yellow Vest protestors: gilet giali in Italian. Speculation was that he considered it would enhance his image in time for May’s EU elections. Huffpost.it reported Di Maio as saying that M5S and the gilets giali had “shared values that focus on the battles of citizens, social rights, direct democracy and the environment”. Other gilet giali supporters, referred to as principal leaders, had said that Di Maio had made no contact with them. Indeed one said that they wouldn’t have lifted the phone if he had rung.

The visit caused a serious diplomatic row. Huffpost.it reported that Chalençon had threatened President Macron with the guillotine. Il Fatto Quotidiano said that Chalençon wanted “to organise a mobilisation on the Franco-Italian border….as a transnational common struggle”. Di Maio apparently approved of this idea. Il Fatto was amazed, wondering why “Di Maio doesn’t seem to remember that he is the Vice-President of the Government” (that he wants to overthrow).

The proverbial penny eventually dropped and Di Maio, realising his mistake, said that he could never support violence. Too late – the French Ambassador was recalled. Matters were taken out of Di Maio’s hands and President Mattarella travelled to Paris to smooth relations.

Another angle on this incident is that the losing M5S candidate in Sardinia did not have any physical support from his leader Luigi Di Maio, who was visiting Paris and Strasbourg instead. The candidate, Francesco Desogus, had asked, but was left on his own. Gabriella Cerami, interviewing him, asked whether he felt abandoned. Her questions probed for critical comment but his responses repeatedly hedged. He did say that he was impressed by the energy and commitment of Salvini who had visited and supported farmers angry about EU milk subsidies. “He knows how to operate…he is always on the crest of a wave, he is a political animal.”

The second incident involves Salvini’s refusal to accept any more seaborn migrants by preventing their rescuers’ boats docking in Italy. Matteo Renzi’s Pd’s (Partito Democratico) government had long pressured ineffectively for other European countries to share the influx taken by Italy. Salvini’s brutal methods worked instantly and migrants were dispersed to be shared with other countries.  In August 2018 Salvini refused to allow the Diciotto coastguard ship with over 100 migrants to off-load in Catania. He threatened that he would return them to Libya if other countries didn’t take their share. The incident was protracted and the Sicilian Regional authorities eventually charged him with kidnap.

At first Salvini was bullish and dismissive but then decided that he did not want to go to court. M5S were then pressured, according to Travaglio, by a blackmailing strategy that threatened to “overthrow the government”, in reality to curtail their coalition. M5S are extremely anxious to avoid an election because currently heavy losses are predicted for them. Marco Travaglio previous Editor of Il Fatto Quotidiano and writer of their editorials  dedicated two of them (16 and 19 February) to this incident.

M5S had used their on-line voting website “Rousseau” to ask members their opinion on whether the case against Salvini should proceed. Travaglio puts it like this, “when ‘the people’ are asked to pronounce not on matters of principle, but on criminal cases of which they know nothing, the answer that usually comes is wrong. And that ….is not only wrong, but suicidal.” “To save Salvini, the Five Stars damn themselves”, by seeming to interfere politically in judicial matters. M5S‘s founder Beppe Grillo agreed, stating in La Repubblica that the Movement should not be sorting out Salvini’s personal difficulties.

Travaglio, as an early supporter of M5S, is clear that the Movement has begun to lose the principles that it originally espoused. He questions the reasons behind this and places the blame on Di Maio’s relationship with Salvini. He is frightened of him. He gives in to him and his demands “..without (Salvini) giving back even a pinch of loyalty”. He considers that the Movement is becoming increasingly like the corrupt parties that they endeavoured to replace.

Matteo Salvini took the Lega Nord, organising solely in the Italian right-wing nationalistic north, and reconstructed it into Lega Salvini – a right-wing pan-national party. Although his candidate won in Sardinia his personal share of the vote was only 12%. In contrast, the Pd’s candidate, Massimo Zedda, Mayor of Caligari, had a larger 13.1%. The centre-right and centre-left’s votes combined to produce the centre-right’s win. Although it was quite a triumph for Salvini’s relatively new party to top the centre-right poll, it was, in the words of Huff-post, not “a transformation into gold“. It also wasn’t the “League wins 6-0 over the Pd” as Salvini described it in Corriere della Sera. But Salvini plays to win.

Now Di Maio has said that M5S must re-examine their rules in order to develop. One interesting change might be to reconsider the pledge that elected members (in any forum) can be mandated for two terms only. This would impact on many MP’s, Senators and Councillors, including Luigi Di Maio himself. La Repubblica (28 February) referred to this rule and later went on to report that Di Maio was “really fed up with losing”.

Matteo Salvini seems to be constantly on the look-out for new opportunities and a Huff-post blog from Fi parliamentarian Mara Carfagna pointed out a direction.  At the end of February there was a developing argument between Berlusconi, his Fi party members and Salvini. Carfagna used the metaphor of the folly of governing with two ovens, to pinpoint the developing view of the right that the M5S plus Lega ‘s two ovens policies were an error responsible for propelling Italy into recession. She is not alone in wanting to capitalise on the faltering position of M5S.

Salvini has repeatedly rejected appeals from Berlusconi to actively revive cooperation with the other centre-right parties. He avoids working with Berlusconi. So far he has resisted this, but pressure is growing on him. They need him. Does he need them? In the run up to the Sardinian election Berlusconi said: “If we win in Sardinia, I’ll just say that I’ll call Matteo Salvini on Monday.”

“On Monday I’ll take my phone off the hook”, was Salvini’s reported response.