In early August, right-wing nationalist Matteo Salvini, leader of the anti-immigrant Lega party, pulled out of the center-right populist government coalition, asking for new elections in late September. Echoing Benito Mussolini, Salvini demanded “full power” — meaning the premiership and full control of the parliament.
Many people think that his move backfired. Elections are not taking place, and a new government has formed and replaced Salvini’s coalition in office. However, there’s reason to believe that Salvini may be back soon, stronger than before.
Salvini is out of power
When Salvini pulled his party out of government, things didn’t go as he expected. Not only were there no new elections, but his erstwhile coalition partner, the centrist populist Five Star Movement (M5S), cobbled together a new coalition with the center-left Democrats (PD) in a remarkably short period of time. Salvini and his Lega party are back in opposition.
Many mainstream observers see the new government as less threatening than the previous one. It promises to avoid confronting the European Commission over budget policy and to treat refugees more humanely than did the previous government. The apparently unruly M5S has unexpectedly come to stand for stability and European respectability. The European establishment once called the designated prime minister Giuseppe Conte a “puppet” of the leader of M5S, Luigi Di Maio, and of Salvini; now it’s comparing him to revered Italian statesmen such as Alcide De Gasperi and Aldo Moro.
But Italy’s problems are still there
Pundits around the world might wish to restrain their sighs of relief. The new government may be able to buy a little time before economic problems begin to bite again, but it will probably not be able to resolve them. Salvini, a radical right-wing populist leader, has risen to prominence primarily because Italy is suffering a long-term economic decline from which it has no obvious exit. Unless the economy miraculously turns around, Salvini will likely rise again. A changed government may even end up strengthening his hand.
For the past 25 years, Italians have experienced a long-running economic crisis, suffering not just economic stagnation, but a real decline in per capita gross domestic product. The net income of the median Italian household decreased 15 percent between 1991 and 2016. Productivity growth has stalled, unemployment (especially youth unemployment) has soared, most new jobs come without benefits or long-term security, poverty has increased and middle-class Italians’ once-enviable standard of living is under threat.
That helps explain why the electorate has become so volatile since the 2013 general election, always looking for new leaders to turn things around, and ever more disappointed when they don’t. After support for the M5S increased from nothing to 26 percent in the 2013 general election, Italians then turned around and gave Matteo Renzi, the flamboyant new leader of the center-left PD, 41 percent of the vote in the 2014 European election. Then the M5S won 33 percent in the 2018 general election while the Lega got 17 percent, and Renzi’s PD receded to 19 percent. When Salvini’s party received 34 percent support in the 2019 European elections while M5S declined to 17 percent, he took it as a signal that it was time to flex his muscles.
Salvini may be better off out of power for a while
Salvini’s departure from leadership may allow him to duck responsibility for his economic policies. Salvini may have called in August for new elections so that his coalition did not have to implement the 2019 budget — which would have required him to deliver on his impossible (given European budget constraints) promise of a “flat tax,” among other economic goodies. Now he is able to offload responsibility for the budget onto a caretaker government while he campaigns from the opposition.
Voters have booted out previous leaders for their inability to rekindle growth. Salvini seems to have found a way to increase his electoral appeal that does not depend on delivering economically. Instead, he relies mainly on anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. A hefty 83 percent of Italian voters consider the refugee problem a priority. Of these, 80 percent want to limit the number of refugees rather than continuing to take them in.
The new government may get the blame for a recession
As the new M5S-PD government takes power, Italy, like other European countries, is on the brink of recession. Unless the European Union allows Italy to launch an ambitious public investment plan — unlikely under E.U. rules about economic deficits — it will be nearly impossible for the new Italian government to deliver growth. Instead, the M5S-PD government may soon be fighting with the European Commission over whether it is allowed to run a few additional decimal points of public deficit. If the economy flounders and boats full of refugees are again allowed to dock at southern Italian ports, Salvini may gain popularity among Italians concerned about both the economy and immigration. Such events would further increase tensions between the two coalition partners, which are also deeply internally divided on various issues.
At that point, a new election would be inevitable. If current opinion polls are to be relied upon, Lega and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party would likely win with more than 40 percent of the vote. And if M5S managed to achieve one of its priorities, cutting the number of parliamentarians, the Italian electoral system’s majority bonus would increase. This could give the far right an opportunity to form a coalition powerful enough to enact sweeping changes not only to Italian policy but also to the constitution. A right-wing populist government running one of the six founding members of the European Union would present a major shock to European politics.
Lucio Baccaro is a director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne, Germany, where he leads a research program on the comparative political economy of growth models. He is the author, with Chris Howell, of “Trajectories of Neoliberal Transformations: European Industrial Relations since the 1970s” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).
Julia Lynch is an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in the politics of inequality, health and social policy in western Europe. Her book “Regimes of Inequality: The Political Economy of Health and Wealth” is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in November.