Forming government in Italy is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s now more than five weeks since the election, and president Sergio Mattarella is continuing his talks with party leaders in the hope of reaching agreement on a government that will be able to command a majority in both houses.
In some countries, this process is drawn-out because there are a lot of options to explore. Last year in Iceland, for example, there were nine parties represented in parliament and a large number of possible routes to a majority: it took a month of talks to settle on a diverse three-party coalition.
But Italy isn’t like this. As has been clear since election night, there are only two realistic options for a majority coalition – an agreement between the populist Five Star Movement and either the far-right League or the centre-left Democratic Party.
Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio professes himself willing to work with either. The League is a ready partner, but its leader, Matteo Salvini, insists that such a government must be based on his coalition agreement with Silvio Berlusconi and his centre-right Forza Italia, and Di Maio has so far given a firm no to Berlusconi, saying he “does not recognise” the right-wing coalition.
You can take your pick as to whether that’s a principled stance against corruption, or a realisation that the presence of both halves of the right in the government would outweigh the Five Stars.
The Democratic Party, on the other hand, is refusing to bid for a share in government at all; its acting leader, Maurizio Martina, is quoted as saying “the negative election result does not allow us to imagine government solutions that include us.” That’s despite the fact that the Five Stars seem particularly keen to attract the centre-left.
Again there is an explanation available that does not involve crediting Di Maio with any high principle. He knows that joining with Salvini in government will involve a constant struggle for primacy; the far-right leader has a Trumpian ego and is most unlikely to play the role of contented deputy. The centre-left, on the other hand, clearly lacks the strength to be anything other than a junior partner.
Last month the Five Stars and the League did manage to reach agreement, when parliament met for the election of a Speaker in each house. The deal provided for the Five Stars to get the job in the lower house and the right in the Senate (actually a member of Forza Italia, but chosen by the League in opposition to Berlusconi).
That showed two worrying things: that the populists and the far right could work together, and that Salvini was willing to ditch Berlusconi if it suited him. But its importance as a precedent shouldn’t be overstated. What made the deal possible was that there were two positions available; they could take one each without having to argue about who had the leading role.
The prime ministership does not lend itself so easily to being shared. Nonetheless, if the centre-left sticks to its position, the League and the Five Stars will be forced to come to some arrangement, if only on a temporary basis, if they want to avoid forcing a new election – an option which is unlikely to solve anything.
Mattarella, himself from the centre-left, has said he is willing to give the parties until July to come to terms. Many members of the Democratic Party are clearly unhappy with the idea of standing idly by and allowing the far right to take power. This would be a good time for them to make a move.
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