Giuseppe Conte: arrives to open meeting of new cabinet

Coming to the rescue

The Partito Democratico - an amalgam of Christian democrats and former ‘communists’ - have joined the ‘anti-establishment’ populists of the Five Star Movement in a new government. Toby Abse reports on what he calls the new ‘popular front’.

The right-populist coalition between Luigi Di Maio’s Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement - M5S) and Matteo Salvini’s Lega has come to an end after 14 months in office. It has been replaced by what seems at first sight to be a more unlikely coalition between M5S and the centre-left Partito Democratico (PD), in which the left-social-democratic Liberi ed Uguali (Free and Equal People - LeU) is a very junior partner, with one minister, Roberto Speranza (health).

The claim made by a euphoric Andrea Orlando, the deputy leader of the PD, to Nicola Zingaretti, the PD leader - “Nic, We have created a masterpiece: this is the most leftwing team of the last 15 years” - was echoed, albeit in the negative sense, by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy - FdI), who described it as “The most leftwing government in the history of the republic.”

The claim is a little extravagant, to put it mildly, especially if we remember that the recent governments backed, or even led, by the PD, such as Mario Monti’s technocratic cabinet of 2011-13 or Matteo Renzi’s coalition in 2014-16, could not be described as leftwing in any meaningful sense. Perhaps the new government could be seen as a rather weird variant of the popular front, since it is essentially a bulwark against Matteo Salvini and the Lega, whose far-right inclinations are increasingly blatant.1 The prime minister remains the same as in the previous administration: Giuseppe Conte, an academic lawyer, who was in effect adopted by the M5S party in 2018, but seems more of a centrist and had, it seems, little or no connection with M5S prior to his first appointment as premier in June 2018. However, after some very fraught negotiations. Conte has been spared any deputy prime ministers on this occasion: M5S leader Di Maio has been bought off with the foreign ministry - a position for which he is singularly ill-suited, but which seemed a safer alternative than allowing him to succeed Salvini as minister of the interior, given the PD’s desire to tone down the anti-migrant and anti-NGO policies which Di Maio had enthusiastically endorsed.

Perhaps the clearest policy shift has been in European policy - regardless of Di Maio’s inclinations, the appointment of PD ministers to the portfolios dealing with economics (Roberto Gualtieri) and European affairs (Enzo Amendola), as well as the appointment of former PD premier Paolo Gentiloni as Italy’s European commissioner (for economic affairs), are intended as a signal that Italy’s alliance with the ‘Visegraders’ (Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) is over and a better relationship with both France and Germany is being sought. Whilst the PD may have fought the last European elections using the words “Siamo Europei” (‘We are Europeans’) on the ballot paper, there is at least as much pragmatism as idealism at work. There is far more chance of a flexible approach to Italy’s national debt and public deficit being shown at a time of zero growth if the Italian government stops hurling insults at the representatives from Paris and Berlin.

Balance of forces

Why has this abrupt change come about? The answer is that Salvini, who had become the dominant figure in the M5S-Lega government overplayed his hand. Whilst Italian governmental crises are not unusual (Italy being notorious for having had more changes of prime minister since 1945 than any other comparable western country - indeed only six of them have lasted more than two years), this is the first governmental crisis to have erupted in the middle of August - a month during which most Italians pay little or no attention to politics.

However, the widespread notion that Matteo Salvini’s rabid outburst on August 8 against his own M5S partners - accompanied by what was widely described as a Mussolinian demand for “full powers”, to use Salvini’s own sinister phrase - can be ascribed to the effects of sitting in a deckchair in the blazing 35° sun and the endless mojitos he was drinking at the bar on the Papeete Beach, where he was spending the week, is probably simplistic. Relations between the Lega and M5S had deteriorated over the previous two months in the wake of the May European election results, which had completely reversed the balance of forces between the Lega and M5S - the Lega’s percentage of the vote doubled (34%), while M5S’s was cut in half (17%).

The Lega emerge as Italy’s strongest party, achieving a considerable lead over the PD, which had itself made a partial recovery under Zingaretti from its general election disaster under Renzi and pushed M5S into a humiliating third place. The Lega’s standing in the opinion polls during the early summer rose above the 34% of the European election towards 38% in some surveys. It was widely believed that, given the mixture of proportional and first-past-the-post seats awarded by the current Italian electoral system, this score might be sufficient to give Salvini an overall majority in parliament - either based on the Lega alone or in alliance with the much smaller far-right FdI led by Giorgia Meloni.

The FdI claims to be “post-fascist”, but retains many of the symbols of the old Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), which had no qualms about identifying itself as neo-fascist. Whilst Salvini was happy to contemplate allying himself with forces to his right, he was reluctant to do any national-level deal with Silvio Berlusconi’s declining Forza Italia, with its links to the European People’s Party and thus to what Salvini regarded as the traditional European establishment.

Many members and supporters of Lega, especially in Lombardy and the Veneto - the strongholds of the old Lega Nord before the party’s name-change, which symbolised its turn from aggressive regionalism to militant nationalism - were increasingly impatient with Salvini’s compromises with the far more southern-dominated M5S, such as the introduction of the ‘citizen’s income’ scheme, which they saw as a concession to feckless southerners. In short, Salvini could be seen as responding to pressure from below in finally breaking with the M5S.

Moreover, there were a number of issues which were heightening tensions between the Lega and M5S by early summer. For example, M5S was slowing down the passage of laws on increased regional autonomy for some prosperous northern regions - in particular the Lega-run Lombardy and Veneto. M5S had belatedly realised that these measures of ‘differentiated autonomy’ would lead to greater inequality in the provision of public services such as health and education between the wealthy north and the poorer south. This was something that was very likely to further alienate unemployed or poorly paid southerners, who accounted for a disproportional share of the M5S vote in regions such as Sicily and Campania in March 2018, but who had started to desert the party in May 2019.


However, if the demand for increased regional autonomy had a particular importance for the Lega’s full-time office-holders in municipal and regional government in the north (as well as those running, or employed by, private companies to which the Lega had outsourced local services, often in a far from transparent manner), the immediate trigger for Salvini’s explosion against M5S seems to have been the question of the TAV - the projected high-speed railway between Turin and Lyon.

M5S had opposed the scheme since its foundation as a party in 2009 and its founder, Beppe Grillo, had been personally involved in the campaign against the TAV even in the days when his followers - the Amici di [Friends of] Beppe Grillo - were more of a collection of environmental pressure groups than a nationally organised force. Indeed, the ‘No TAV’ protest movement seems to have been the only instance in which Grillo’s fiery platform rhetoric was matched by practical direct action, leading to his own arrest.

The drilling of long tunnels through the mountains of the Val di Susa clearly damages the local environment and is fiercely opposed by many of the local peasant farmers, who over the last two decades have formed an unusual alliance with anarchists and autonomists from Turin’s centri sociali (who illegally occupied social centres). Their willingness to mobilise large numbers for guerrilla actions against the TAV often led to violent confrontations with the carabinieri, which cannot always be ascribed to ecological concerns. In any event M5S’s enthusiastic support for the No TAV campaign won it an electoral base amongst the peasants of the Val di Susa.

Over the last year there have been three large demonstrations in Turin, each involving tens of thousands over the question of the high-speed railway. This drew in M5S supporters, environmentalists and far leftists from across the country. By contrast, both the Lega and the PD have taken a clear ‘Si TAV’ (Yes to TAV) stance. Although there was no doubt that the project had already caused some environmental damage and, if completed, will cause more of the same in the Val di Susa, commentary about the wider issues is so blatantly partisan on both sides that it is hard for somebody without specialist knowledge to judge whether the project has any merit or not.

Early this year a ‘cost benefit analysis’ conducted by a committee appointed by former M5S infrastructure minister, Danilo Toninelli, ruled against it, but pro-TAV journalists in Repubblica and Corriere argued that the report’s figures were flawed and it omitted some factors in the TAV’s favour. Some anti-TAV polemicists in Il Fatto Quotidiano, one of the daily newspapers that broadly supports M5S, seemed to argue that the TAV is now unnecessary because of an improvement in Italian motorways and an increase in cheap short-haul air traffic (Ryanair and EasyJet) over the whole period when the TAV has been under discussion - it seems to have been devised at the same time as the London-Paris Channel Tunnel. In response we are bound to ask: would it be better for the environment if goods and passengers were pushed into using high-speed rail rather than more polluting cars, lorries and airplanes?

Whilst M5S deliberately left the question of the TAV unresolved until after the May European elections, in a desperate bid to hang onto some of their traditional environmentalist votes,2 by July M5S prime minister Giuseppe Conte had, to the Lega’s delight, ruled in favour of the TAV. Conte did so on the basis that it would cost far more to cancel the project than to go ahead with it. In large part this was because of the international treaties surrounding it, under which Italy had legal obligations to France and was in receipt of EU funds, which, contrary to the demagogic assertions of M5S propagandists, could not be diverted to other, more local, projects like a Turin metro.

It has been claimed by some opponents of the TAV that France is craftily postponing building the structure of the railway track that would bring the new line into Lyon; and that in addition more of the tunnel is under French territory than under Italian, although Italy is paying more towards the bill. Whilst Emmanuel Macron is certainly capable of being a dishonest hypocrite, as his stance on the refugee question has frequently shown, some of these assertions may be the product of Francophobia on the part of both the anti-TAV M5S and the pro-TAV Lega.

In any event on August 7 M5S attempted to save face by voting for an anti-TAV motion in parliament, ludicrously repudiating the decision of their own prime minister in a spectacle designed to impress their more naive voters (the No TAV movement in the Val di Susa had already repudiated its long-standing links with M5S, with its leader engaging in an exchange of insults with Beppe Grillo). As M5S knew in advance, the Lega was able to count on the support of the PD, FdI and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia to vote the M5S motion down. Although M5S were in practical terms utterly isolated, three of the four LeU senators upheld the traditional No TAV line of the far left. But the very fact that M5S had engaged in a purely symbolic challenge to the Lega line seems to enraged Salvini and within 36 hours he dropped the August 8 bombshell mentioned earlier.


It is arguable that Salvini may have delayed a premeditated rupture with M5S until shortly after this TAV vote in order to ensure that M5S voted for the second of his so-called ‘security laws’, passed a few days before in parliament. His aim was to maximise the Lega’s electoral popularity in an early contest that he assumed would be fought primarily on the migrant issue. This ‘security law’, amongst other provisions, vastly increased the fines imposed on NGOs that defied the ban on landing shipwrecked migrants in Italian ports to an extraordinary €1 million, as well also making the penalties for illegal acts (eg, vandalism) committed in the course of a demonstration higher than if they were committed under any other circumstances. How much pressure Salvini needed to put on M5S to get their parliamentarians to support this inhuman, racist and authoritarian package is far from clear. It should never be forgotten that both Di Maio and his former friend and current rival, Alessandro Di Battista, are both the rabidly racist sons of lifelong neo-fascist fathers and that Di Maio, not Salvini, invented the disgusting description of NGO rescue boats as “sea taxis”.

Only a handful of M5S parliamentarians refused to vote for Salvini’s second ‘security law’ and the sanctions available to the M5S leadership were less effective, now that the coalition’s majority in the Senate had sunk to low single figures. A couple of M5S senators had already been expelled for possessing a conscience that had led them to vote against Salvini’s first ‘security law’, introducing the initial penalties against NGO ships which saved drowning migrants. Salvini obviously felt that, in the event of an early election in which the Lega’s campaign would centre on attacking migrants, the first ‘security law’ would not be vicious enough in its own right - although in practical terms, by depriving thousands of migrants of “humanitarian protection,”3 as well as closing many reception centres, it seemed to guarantee to drive many migrants into total destitution, hence in some cases towards petty crime. This was exactly the kind of outcome that would increase fear and insecurity amongst poorer Italians and thus boost the Lega’s vote.

So far I have concentrated on the straightforward, openly discussed political issues that could have triggered Salvini’s August 8 break with M5S. However, it is also possible that there was another, less public motive, prompting Salvini to make a frantic bid for “full powers”: that is, in the hope of gaining prime ministerial office and using it to escape potential judicial problems in the way Silvio Berlusconi did for so many years.

This was the scandal generally referred to as ‘Moscopoli’ - the allegations that the Lega may have obtained substantial Russian funding for the 2019 European election via a €3 million kickback on a substantial purchase of Russian oil by an Italian company. There is no doubt that negotiations for such a deal took place in Moscow’s Hotel Metropole in October 2018 - a leaked audio recording of the conversation emerged in July 2019. This meeting coincided with an official visit of Salvini’s to Moscow, during which the Italian interior minister addressed some Italian businessmen trading with Russia and met his Russian counterpart for talks. One of the three men on the Italian side in these secret negotiations was Gianluca Savoini - a close political associate of Salvini’s who had acted as his personal spokesman in the period immediately after his election as Lega leader in December 2013. It may be the case that what appeared to be very serious efforts to negotiate such a deal ultimately fell through, but even a completely unsuccessful attempt to obtain foreign funding in such an underhand manner falls foul of Italian law.

The three men identified as Italian negotiators are currently the subject of a criminal investigation by the Milanese magistrates. When the scandal broke in July 2019, the PD demanded that Salvini make a statement to parliament about the affair. This was because his response to media enquiries had been a mixture of evasion and outright lies. He claimed he barely knew Savoini (although numerous photographs of the pair together on various occasions in both Italy and Moscow have emerged) and that Savoini had somehow barged into official meetings without an invitation - which is absurd, given the extremely high level of security precautions in Putin’s Moscow. But Salvini refused to face such parliamentary scrutiny.

Giuseppe Conte, as prime minister, was consequently forced to make a statement to parliament on Salvini’s behalf. This episode rankled with Conte, who was tired of Salvini acting as if he was already prime minister rather than one of two deputy prime ministers. This explains why Conte’s resignation speech on August 20 ultimately took the form of a vitriolic personal attack on Salvini, and also why Conte had no patience with Di Maio’s wobbling about Salvini’s offer of the premiership the following week. Conte put an end to Salvini’s hope of reconciliation with M5S by announcing at the Biarritz summit in late August that he (Conte) would never work with Salvini again.

Why did Salvini’s bid to force an early general election go wrong? Essentially because he could not conceive of any alliance between M5S and the PD.

PD internal battle

The PD’s immediate reaction to Salvini’s August 8 attack on M5S was the one the Lega leader had predicted - to call for a general election. Zingaretti understandably saw a general election as a good way of freeing himself from the predominantly hostile PD groups in both the Senate and the Chamber, who had been chosen by Matteo Renzi with minimal consultation with the left minority within the party in the run-up to the March 2018 general election.

Although Zingaretti had won about two thirds of the vote in the PD primary in March 2019 and Renzi’s favourite candidate had come third in the contest, the former leader maintained his hold over the bulk of those he had brought into parliament. Renzi made no secret of his detestation of Zingaretti’s move away from the hard-line, neoliberal and anti-trade union policies he had espoused.

It should be stressed that Zingaretti’s return to mildly social democratic policies and willingness not only to meet with trade union leaders, but to actively participate in union-organised demonstrations, probably only makes him roughly equivalent to Ed Miliband in political terms. However, the consistently antagonistic attitude of the bulk of the PD parliamentarians towards him is more reminiscent of the response of the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party to Jeremy Corbyn.

During the European election campaign Zingaretti had adopted a ‘broad church’ approach. He even included in the PD lists a token number of lesser known members of the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP), formed in 2017 following a left split from the PD (he used the fig leaf of their common adherence to the Party of the European Socialists to avoid putting the letters MDP on the ballot paper). However, he also placed the neoliberal technocrat, Carlo Calenda (a former minister in a PD-led government), at the head of the list in the Northeast Italy Euro constituency.3

Maybe the relatively good result had given Zingaretti more confidence and for a moment it looked like a more thorough-going deRenzification of the party, with a long overdue purge of the candidate list, in the offing. However, Renzi’s recent change of heart in relation to M5S has put an end to this. It should be remembered that it was Renzi who in a newspaper interview had put an abrupt end to possible discussions with M5S in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 general election. Moreover, an alleged willingness to make a future deal with M5S had been one of Renzi’s endlessly repeated accusations against Zingaretti since the latter had been party leader.

Therefore it was surprising, to say the very least, that Renzi did a U-turn and, in an interview with Corriere della Sera on August 11, called for discussions with M5S rather than supporting Zingaretti’s option for a general election. Renzi’s motives were, of course, far from pure: one was the concern about the need for a budget acceptable to the EU (as opposed to the deliberately provocative deficit budget envisaged by the Lega, in which Salvini’s proposed ‘flat tax’ would have deprived the state of much of its revenue); the other was the need to place curbs on Salvini’s power grab. Renzi had not - and probably still has not - abandoned his dream of creating a new Macron-type party and needed the support of a reasonable number of rightwingers amongst the PD parliamentary groups to make this possible. A short-lived coalition with M5S until spring 2020 might give him the time he needs.

Most PD parliamentarians - regardless of whether they were really attracted by a breakaway that was projected to get around 5%, according to opinion polls - were anxious to keep their seats and therefore backed Renzi’s deal with M5S. Inevitably, there were problems with the proposal, given M5S’s hostility to Renzi and his clique: De Maio predictably said that he “would not sit down at a table” with Renzi.

Zingaretti was initially far from enthusiastic about a deal with M5S, but, when former PD premier Enrico Letta (who Renzi had toppled) and centre-left veteran and former premier Romano Prodi expressed their support for the idea, his attitude started to soften. However, Zingaretti insisted the aim should be a long-term coalition with an agreed common programme, not a temporary lash-up that merely postponed a general election until spring 2020. Zingaretti was undoubtedly influenced by Dario Franceschini, a former PD leader from a Christian Democratic background, who unlike Renzi also sought a longer-term deal with M5S. Franceschini’s willingness to accept the culture ministry that he had already held in 2014-18, rather than hold out for a higher ranking office, played a very important role in the final days of negotiations, when Di Maio was continually raising obstacles.


The negotiations did reveal quite a number of cracks in the apparent unity of M5S - cracks which to some extent can be interpreted as left-right divisions of the kind that M5S claimed no longer existed in the 21st century. Di Maio was clearly tempted by Salvini’s belated offer of the premiership in a renewed M5S-Lega coalition and there was little doubt that he and Salvini were communicating behind the backs of the PD until a few days before the end of the crisis. On the other hand, Alessandro Di Battista clearly opposed any deal with the PD, only falling silent shortly before the September 3 online vote of M5S members, in which 79.3% backed it - 79,634 of the claimed 115,000 eligible members took part - the highest number in any of M5S’s online referenda. This allowed followers of Grillo to wax lyrical about the wonders of “direct democracy”.

The M5S figure who had the most sympathy for the change of alliance was Roberto Fico, the speaker of the Chamber of Deputies. While some well informed writers about the internal workings of M5S believe that the PD and others on the left are naive in taking all Fico’s intermittent left posturing too seriously - pointing out his complicity in expulsions of M5S leftwingers in earlier years, as well as a degree of careerist cooperation with the M5S right - it is quite clear that he does not share Salvini’s views on migrants and gypsies, and much prefers working with the PD than the Lega.

Another figure who played some role in the negotiation’s success was Vincenzo Spadafora, who, unlike the vast majority of M5S politicians, had a prehistory of involvement with various groupings on the centre-left. It was no accident that the dinner where Di Maio and Zingaretti first met face to face to discuss a possible coalition was in Spadafora’s home. It also became apparent as negotiations progressed that Conte wanted them to succeed and got increasingly irritated with Di Maio’s demands to be deputy premier, minister of the interior or minister of defence, which kept threatening to delay everything at the last minute.

Whilst Conte, as stated earlier, is by inclination a centrist rather than any kind of leftwinger, he clearly found it easier to work with Zingaretti or Franceschini rather than a thug like Salvini and is aware that Di Maio, whilst possessing some media skills, is his intellectual inferior. Conte also seems to have learned a lot from his dealings with his European counterparts over the last year and has realised that Italy would gain more concessions through the give and take of negotiations than by the gratuitous rants about Macron and Jean-Claude Juncker beloved of Salvini and Di Maio.

Conte has twice saved Italy from EU infraction procedures during his first premiership and was probably the prime mover behind the decision of the M5S members of the European parliament to join their PD colleagues in voting in favour of Ursula Von der Leyen as European Commission president rather than join the Lega, the German AfD and French Ralliement National in opposing her. Given her narrow margin of victory - nine votes - the new Italian government has benefited from this.

Beppe Grillo, somewhat surprisingly, in view of his past hostility to the PD, also played a role in urging M5S to make a deal with Zingaretti. Grillo, like Conte - albeit more publicly and with a great degree of sarcasm - expressed his irritation with Di Maio’s excessive demands in the last few days of negotiations.

Given M5S’s incessant rhetoric about la casta (the political class) in general and corrupt parliamentarians in particular, it is hard not to laugh about the overwhelming hostility towards facing an early election under unfavourable conditions on the part of M5S parliamentarians, who so evidently enjoyed the high salaries and generous expenses to which they have become accustomed (even if keeping them required a deal with the PD).

Whether M5S and the PD are capable of working together in the long run remains to be seen. Similarly, it is far from clear whether the EU will grant Italy enough fiscal flexibility to give this government a fair chance of surviving. Even if a weakened Germany now has its own reasons to be less harsh, the hard-line neoliberal governments of the so-called Hanseatic League (the Netherlands, Ireland, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) may block any expansionary initiatives from the southern Europeans.

Whilst Mario Draghi has made it clear in the last few days that quantitative easing must continue, there is no guarantee that the outgoing European Central Bank president can bind his successor, Christine Lagarde. In short, the reprieve for Italy may only be temporary.


1. Both Rifondazione Comunista and the self-styled “communist daily” Il Manifesto have supported the formation of the new coalition as the only way of halting Salvini’s march to power.

2. They had already lost many of such voters through their craven sell-out of their electoral promises to close the ILVA steel works at Taranto (notoriously the cause of numerous cancer deaths in the city), to cancel the Trans-Adriatic pipeline bringing gas from Azerbaijan, and to stop the drilling for oil in the Adriatic.

3. The ungrateful Calenda has now left the PD in protest against the deal with M5S but naturally he has not given up his seat.