When Europe emerged from the chaos and calamity of the Second World War 76 years ago, Italy was in ruins. Its fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, had backed Nazi Germany at the outbreak of hostilities in 1939 and entered the conflict in early 1940.
By the end of the war six years later, Italy had changed sides, was economically and physically ruined and Il Duce had been captured and killed by partisans two days before Hitler took his own life in a Berlin Bunker.
When it came to the work of putting Italy back together and ensuring that never again would a single politician be able to control the nation as Mussolini did in the decades from 1922 onwards, the framers of Italy’s modern constitution between 1946 and its coming into effect in 1948 made it necessary for any new government to have a majority in both the lower Chamber of Deputies and the upper Senate.
Simply put, it’s very hard for any one party to be able to gain a majority in both — which is the way the constitution was designed to thwart Mussolini’s fascists and forces of the far-right or Left, from gaining full control.
Since the Second World War, Italy has had 66 separate governments — and at one stage changed administrations every year, more often than automaker Fiat changed some models of its cars.
Things were not so bad over the past decades, with two separate administrations running their full terms. Now, however, it looks as if Italy will be back to changing its government — and precisely the measures that were introduced after the Second World War are likely to thwart the rise of extremists once more — this time in the guise of Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini and his right-wing League.
Right now, Italian President Sergio Mattarella is wrapping up two days of talks with various political party leaders to try and seek a way out of the current political stalemate brought about by Salvini in his attempt to force a new general election in Italy.
Sixteen months ago, Salvini’s League had formed a coalition government with the populist 5-Star Movement led by Luigi Di Maio. They agreed on an obscure economics professor, Giuseppe Conte as prime minister as a compromise. And since then, Salvini has marginalised 5-Star and Di Maio, campaigning non-stop and making all of the headlines for all of the right’s reasons. He’s stopped boats carrying rescued refugees plucked from the Mediterranean landing at Italian ports, forged a pan-European right-wing alliance with some of Europe’s least-savoury political personalities, and railed against the European Union and Brussels at every turn.
Last Tuesday, Conte said he’s had enough, launching a blistering attack on Salvini and accused him of sinking the coalition and endangering the economy purely for his personal and political gain. And he’s right.
Salvini has been campaigning on the beaches as Italians vacationed with the League closing in on the 40 per cent mark in opinion polls. That’s a level of support Salvini believes is high enough to give it majorities in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies in the event of a new election. But it’s a gamble — and things can go wrong on the campaign trail.
Calling time on the alliance
Three weeks ago, Salvini declared the coalition over and called for fresh elections. The government has limped along since then, with Conte’s speech finally calling time on the alliance.
But it’s a big gamble — and the current talks being facilitated by President Mattarella could potentially open the door for a new coalition between 5-Star and the centre-left Democratic Party. Such a government would move Italy back into the centre, restore it to the pro-European Union (EU) camp and push Salvini and the League out of power onto the opposition benches.
Markets normally don’t like uncertainty. In this instance, however, investors relish the prospect of Salvini and his hardline view on the EU being sidelined, and they pumped money into Rome’s bourse and bought Italian bonds. The Germans, always with one eye on Italy and its finances and how that might affect the value of the euro, are also nodding approvingly, believing that the talks will be successful and that the issue of Herr Salvini will be a sideshow for the next few years.
If the talks fail, Mattarella would have to call new elections — which would play right into Salvini’s hands.
For five years, Matteo Renzi’s Democrats ruled in a fairly effective administration that restored order after the ‘Bunga Bunga’ governments of Silvio Berlusconi. Matteo Renzi tried hard to reform Italy’s economy and was rebutted in a referendum and then the general election of March, 2018. But he, for one, is relishing the prospect of being able to get back to the seat of power in a coalition deal with 5-Star.
In public, Salvini is talking up the prospect of fighting an election with the League in a surging position. Privately, however, he has reportedly told aides that he concedes there is only a 10 per cent chance of elections happening.
Right now, there is a new Italian budget for 2020 due. And unless some sort of an agreement is reached, there will be an increase in Italy’s Value Added Tax rate, from 22 to 25 per cent. The very nature of VAT means it’s felt and paid by everyone — even supporters of the League. Renzi wants to get a government formed right now, put together a budget that can find the €23 billion (Dh93.77 billion) needed to avoid that hike in VAT — and yes, shut Salvini out.