Danger of a right-populist coalition

While some insist that M5S is a ‘leftwing’ force, writes Toby Abse, it could well be heading for government in alliance with the Lega

Since the March 4 general election there have been some signs of real convergence between the two rightwing, populist forces that made substantial advances in terms of both votes and seats - the Movimento Cinque Stelle(Five Star Movement - M5S) and theLega (previously known as Lega Nord).

So far, discussions about either an M5S-Lega government or any other coalition have remained inconclusive, whilst the Partito Democratico-led government of Paolo Gentiloni remains in office on a temporary basis to deal with day-to-day business. President Sergio Mattarella is increasingly anxious that some new government be formed, as he believes that a second general election this year would alarm the markets, particularly if it produced another hung parliament. His two rounds of consultations with all the party leaders in the two weeks immediately after Easter failed to resolve the situation, and he has now asked the speaker of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, to see if she can persuade the parties of the ‘centre-right’ and M5S to come to some agreement.

The two populist leaders - Luigi Di Maio of M5S and Matteo Salvini of the Lega - have both staked a claim to the office of prime minister. However, despite their obvious rivalry and occasional exchanges of insults, they seem to have maintained constant daily contact via telephone calls and text messages in a way that none of their counterparts - Silvio Berlusconi of Forza Italia, Giorgia Meloni of the neo-fascist Fratelli d’Italia (FdI) and Maurizio Martina of the centre-left PD - have done, either with each other or with the duo in question. The two men have a certain amount in common, not just in generational terms - as the 31-year-old Di Maio has pointed out, their combined age is still less than that of the 81-year-old Berlusconi. Both of them dropped out of university without finishing their degrees, and neither of them held down a ‘normal’ job for any length of time before becoming professional politicians.

Salvini’s claim to the premiership is based on the 37% combined electoral total of a so-called ‘centre-right’1 coalition (Lega, Forza Italia, FdI and the miniscule centrist Noi con l’Italia), of which he has become leader, since the Lega’s vote share eclipsed that of Forza Italia. The official understanding between the Lega and Forza Italia is that the latter would let M5S have the presidency (speakership) of the Chamber of Deputies, whilst the senator chosen by Berlusconi as Forza Italia party leader would become speaker of the Senate with the backing of M5S. However, when Berlusconi put forward the long-standing Forza Italiasenator, Paolo Romani, M5S took vehement exception to the candidacy of this “convicted criminal”. Romani’s conviction was for a rather minor offence by the standards of Forza Italia - he had allowed his daughter to run up a large bill on a mobile phone he possessed in an official capacity, fraudulently claiming expenses for her calls in his own name. Reprehensible as this was, it was hardly in the same category as the misdeeds of Berlusconi’s long-standing commercial and political associate, and co-founder of Forza Italia in 1994, Marcello dell’Utri, who is currently serving time for Mafia-related offences.

Given M5S’s years of consistent rhetorical opposition to Berlusconi and Forza Italia, the real issue was the acceptance of any Forza Italia candidate for Senate speaker, but M5S demagogy obviously required it to strain at this gnat. The Lega’s prior commitment to the alliance with Berlusconi should have meant that the Lega senators would have voted for Romani in the initial ballots, but instead they seem to have been behind the unexpected flood of votes for another Forza Italia candidate, Anna Maria Bernini. Berlusconi did not have any particular objection to Bernini, a trusted loyalist whom he promoted to the headship of the Forza Italiagroup in the Senate a couple of days later, when Romani resigned that post in disgust as his treatment. Berlusconi’s annoyance arose from the fact that his clear instructions to vote for his own personal choice - Romani - were being defied by his ‘allies’ in the Lega, who seemed to be in cahoots with M5S.

Grand coalition

By the evening of March 23, it looked as if the alliance between Berlusconi and Salvini had come to an end, with angry statements being exchanged. In the customary melodramatic style of Italian parliamentary politics, all was resolved the following morning, but in a way that really represented a major personal defeat for Berlusconi and boosted Salvini’s importance as the mediator between Forza Italia and M5S.2 Forza Italia had to acknowledge that neither Romani nor Bernini could be its candidate, and instead accept that Elisabetta Casellati - a Berlusconi loyalist, but clearly not the person the tycoon wanted to promote - would be the new president of the Senate, elected with the help of M5S votes.

In return, M5S withdrew its initial candidate for the presidency of the Chamber, in favour of Roberto Fico, who had first been involved in the Neapolitan branch of the ‘Amici di Beppe Grillo’ (Friends of Beppe Grillo) back in 2005, long before the comedian created M5S as a national political movement. Fico is not on particularly good terms with Di Maio, so giving him an institutional role could be interpreted as a way of silencing potential dissent.3 It was hardly surprising that, although Fico was duly elected, his total vote was more than 50 short of the number of ‘centre-right’ deputies - all or most of the missing votes must have been the product of intense irritation among the ranks of Forza Italia.

Before the March 4 political earthquake Berlusconi was in all probability planning to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with the PD under Matteo Renzi, and he would surely still prefer a ‘centre-right’ minority government with the external support of the PD to any deal with M5S, although he is now wary of saying so publicly.

Although M5S has so far rejected any governmental deal with Forza Italia, the whole episode resulting in Casellati’s election as president of the Senate reveals how hollow its anti-Berlusconian demagogy is. Casellati was under-secretary for justice in one of Berlusconi’s governments, and as a highly-regarded lawyer may well have played a role in drafting, not just defending, a number of his ad personam laws designed to sabotage an unfavourable outcome to any of his numerous trials. Moreover, she was accused of nepotism and a conflict of interests when she appointed her own daughter to a highly paid post in her secretariat at the ministry. Whilst M5S may have had no objection to Casellati’s public opposition to civil partnerships or her hard-line anti-abortion stance, one might have thought that she would have fallen foul of their repeated calls for “honesty” and “transparency”.

It is worth noting that according to a Demopolis opinion poll carried out on April 2-3, 46% of M5S voters would favour an alliance with the Lega, compared with a mere 18% in favour of the more leftwing option of a governmental alliance between M5S, the PD and the left social democratic Liberi e Uguali4 (Free and Equal People - LeU). 27% of M5S voters want another general election as soon as possible, in the belief that this would give M5S an overall majority5, and only a minuscule 4% of M5S voters support an alliance with the whole ‘centre-right’ coalition (ie, an alliance includingForza Italia). This preference on the part of M5S voters is reciprocated by Lega voters - 65% of whom would support an M5S-Legagovernment (without Forza Italia). Unsurprisingly, only 8% of Lega voters would favour a ‘centre-right’ government backed by the PD, which is in all probability still Berlusconi’s favoured option.

Whither PD?

The PD’s current line arguably makes an M5S-Lega coalition more likely. Renzi has insisted that the PD must take up a position of intransigent opposition and avoid any coalitions. Despite his resignation as party leader, Renzi is still in control of a large number of parliamentarians as a result of his rigorous purge of opponents (or even potential opponents) during the infamous night of the PD’s candidate selection for the general election. Unsurprisingly, internal opposition to the former leader’s ‘backseat driving’ has spread beyond the ranks of the vestigial left currents to such figures as culture minister Dario Franceschini. Acting PD leader Maurizio Martina - Renzi’s former deputy - has proved much less malleable than Renzi hoped, and has pursued a pragmatic balancing act between Renzian and anti-Renzian groupings. Martina avoided a bitter contest over the leadership of the PD’s parliamentary groups in the two chambers by turning support for his compromise choices into a vote of confidence in his own leadership.

The ultra-Renzian, Andrea Marcucci, has got the key post in the Senate, where the Renzians are strongest, whilst in the Chamber the original Renzian candidate had to withdraw in favour of Graziano Delrio, who, although not exactly anti-Renzian, could be described as a disillusioned former Renzian. On immigration, for instance, he has come into conflict with the racist PD interior minister, Marco Minniti. Renzi’s internal opponents are much more open to the notion of at least engaging in discussions with M5S. On April 3, Di Maio was suggesting that M5S could form a governmental alliance either with the Lega or with a “de-Renzified” PD, but not with Berlusconi and Forza Italia. Later, in a Repubblica interview (April 7) memorably headlined “The war is over”, Di Maio modified his position and said he was willing to negotiate with the PD as a whole, including Renzi. When Franceschini responded positively to this apparent opening, his Facebook page was rapidly filled with dozens of hostile comments by Renzi supporters.

However, Renzi’s stance of intransigent opposition is probably less consistent than it seems, being primarily directed at M5S. Despite his sharp criticism of theLega as “extremists” during the election campaign, many suspect he might be willing to keep a ‘centre-right’ coalition - including the Lega - in office by external support or tactical abstentions if he were in full control of the PD’s parliamentary groups. Some of Renzi’s entourage have given journalists the impression that he is still flirting with a Emmanuel Macron-style centrist project, and that if the PD made some sort of deal with M5S he would lead a rightwing split from a party that had gone out of his control, and set up an Italian En Marche in competition with it.

Whilst the desire - on the part of anti-Renzians in the PD and of LeU6 - to obstruct the formation of a right-populist M5S-Lega government is understandable, propping up an M5S minority government seems a dangerous course for both the PD and LeU. Any revival of the left is dependent upon re-establishing a clear, independent identity based on social justice that breaks with both Blairite neoliberalism and the hunger for governmental office at any price that typified the Renzi years.

Giving M5S some sort of credibility as a ‘leftwing’ force could easily precipitate a tactical vote for M5S by PD voters concerned about the Lega, and wipe out social democracy as a parliamentary force at the next election. This would create a new bipolar system based on the Lega and M5S - a division between a predominantly northern and a predominantly southern form of rightwing populism, rather than a division based on class politics.


1. In reality this coalition is way to the right of centre, with two of its components being far-right.

2. M5S has so far refused any direct contact with “the felon, Berlusconi”.

3. Fico had made a public statement vigorously opposing an M5S alliance with the Lega. He has also shown commitment to public ownership of utilities like water, and was not keen on Grillo’s racist position on immigration being imposed on M5S parliamentarians. However, those who paint a romantic picture of Fico as representing an earlier, more leftwing strand in M5S, should note that he has often played a key role in the expulsion of dissenters, including leftwingers, from M5S.

4. The second of these alternatives would have a parliamentary majority, albeit a very narrow one, especially in the Senate.

5. In reality, this decisive outcome seems unlikely. Although several opinion polls show increased support for both M5S and the Lega, all of them suggest that the outcome would be another hung parliament, as the larger M5S vote share would still leave them well short of an overall majority. Support for the PD continues to decline, and a number of polls suggest that theLega has overtaken it as the second most popular party.

6. LeU, unlike the PD, has had official meetings with M5S in the last few weeks.