Italy succeeds where Spain fails

Most of the attention in Europe for the last week has been on Britain, where the Brexit saga has reached new heights of political and constitutional drama. The country will almost certainly be going to the polls in October or November, and may be looking for a new government even before then.

We’ll have a look at that tomorrow. First, an update on the two major governmental crises on the continent.

The first one is Italy, where the attempt by far-right leader Matteo Salvini to force an early election has failed. Instead, prime minister Giuseppe Conte – an independent, but aligned with the populist Five-Star Movement – has been sworn in at the head of a new government that replaces Salvini’s League with the centre-left Democratic Party.

Salvini, who had previously been deputy prime minister, wanted to take advantage of his lead in the opinion polls, gambling that his opponents would not succeed in combining against him. But, showing more common sense than has been typical in recent Italian politics, they did.

Leaders of the European Union are clearly rapt at this development, with the prospect of Italy pulling back from the anti-immigrant and anti-EU policies that had characterised the previous government. During the period of negotiations, even Donald Trump tweeted his support for Conte, which must have been especially galling for the far right.

The Five-Stars’ membership endorsed the new coalition last week by a majority of almost 80%. It gives them a chance, at least, to rebuild their support; they had the most to lose from fresh elections, having dropped badly in the polls following their entrance into government last year – a not uncommon fate for populist movements.

No such good news, however, in Spain, where the clock is ticking towards 21 September, the deadline – 60 days after the first attempt – for a government to win a vote of confidence and avoid a fresh election.

This is what happened in 2016. It didn’t solve anything then, with the voters returning a parliament pretty much like the previous one. The polls suggest that’s exactly what would happen this time as well.

Elections on 28 April produced a clear majority for the left-of-centre parties, but so far they have failed to work together to form a government. Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez is trying to coax the far left Podemos into supporting him without paying the price that they want of participation in a fully-fledged coalition.

His latest expedient is to offer a set of policy pledges with institutional mechanisms that would allow Podemos to monitor compliance with them, but without actual places in cabinet. Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias said he “would take his time to study the proposal.”

It’s not completely obvious why the Italian centre-left has succeeded where its Spanish counterparts (as least so far) have failed – somewhat cutting against the recent conventional wisdom about the two countries. But one reason probably is that Italy has a lot more recent experience of multi-party politics.

Prior to the 2015 election, Spain had enjoyed a stable two-party system for a generation. Its politicians are still coming to grips with the different style of politics required since its breakdown. But apart from a short period when Silvio Berlusconi was at his peak, Italy has never had that sort of stability. So its leaders are used to dealing with shifting alliances.

Sánchez could take some lessons from them.

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