Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy premier and interior minister since 2018, has been shut out of the Italian government after his gambit to force snap elections to become prime minister backfired.
As the de facto leader of Europe's anti-mass-migration movement, Salvini's departure from government may set back efforts to slow illegal immigration to the continent. Many analysts, however, believe that Salvini, who continues to lead his rivals in opinion polls, will be back in government soon and in an even stronger position than before.
On August 8, after months of public feuding, Salvini declared the governing coalition between his League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) unworkable. He accused M5S of blocking the League's main policies and said that the only way forward was to hold fresh elections.
The League and M5S, ahead of an inconclusive election in March 2018, had been political adversaries. Three months later, however, they formed an unlikely alliance. Their June 2018 coalition agreement, outlined in a 39-page action plan, promised to crack down on illegal immigration and to deport up to 500,000 undocumented migrants.
Since then, Salvini has accused M5S of failing to implement parts of the coalition agreement. Tensions came to a head on August 7, when, during a session in Parliament, M5S voted against a project supported by Salvini for a high-speed train link with France. "It is useless to go ahead with 'no's' and quarrels," Salvini wrote on his Facebook page. "Italians need certainty and a government that works, not a Mr. 'No.'" Salvini called for new elections to be held on October 13.
In an effort to avoid early elections, which polls show that Salvini would win, M5S reached out to the rival center-left Democratic Party (PD), cutting Salvini's League party out of power. M5S and PD clinched a preliminary coalition agreement on August 28, and a day later Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, an independent, to form a new coalition government. Although the League is Italy's most popular party, M5S and PD are the two largest forces in parliament.
Although the anti-establishment, anti-EU M5S and the pro-establishment, pro-EU PD have long been political enemies, M5S appears to have set aside many of its core principles to meet PD's demands. For now, M5S has insisted on maintaining a hardline anti-illegal immigration law passed with the League in November 2018. The law, championed by Salvini, saw public support for the League skyrocket from 17% in the March 2018 election to 38% in August 2019.
The new government — which aims to govern until the next general election, due to be held no later than May 2023 — will have to be approved in a vote of confidence by both houses of Parliament.
The new governing alliance, if realized, may be short lived. In an interview with the Italian daily La Stampa, former Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the Lega Nord party said that the new government, if it comes to fruition, will be "intrinsically weak" because it would exist, "not for a shared political project but only to avoid elections." He added that there was a possibility that the new government could last for the entire legislature "in order to avoid delivering the country to Salvini."
Several Italian newspapers reported on efforts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European officials to prevent early elections in Italy — solely to stop Salvini from becoming prime minister. Merkel reportedly ordered leaders of the PD to reach a coalition agreement with M5S. "Make the agreement and stop Salvini," she reportedly said.
A leaked document showed that outgoing EU Budget Commissioner Günther Oettinger had offered to relax EU rules on public debt in exchange for "a pro-European government that does not work against Europe."
Writing for the Italian daily Il Giornale, political correspondent Andrea Indini noted:
"Berlin's interference with the decisions of the Democratic Party are not surprising at all. As we have reported in recent days, the first meeting between M5S and PD dates back to July 16, when Ursula von der Leyen was elected president of the European Commission, thanks in part to support from M5S and PD. Von der Leyen is not just any person, she is Merkel's clone. Her election is part of a strategy executed alongside French President Emmanuel Macron to split the nationalist bloc in Europe. It is certainly not a coincidence that, moments after Salvini pulled the plug on his government, [former Italian prime minister and former European Commission president] Romano Prodi, faster than a slingshot, called for Italy to be governed by an 'Ursula Coalition' that is formed by the same political forces [M5S and PD] that helped to elect von der Leyen.
"That there are international interests behind the formation of the new coalition government is now clear to most. 'The Democratic Party is at the service of foreign countries,' Salvini said last night during a rally in Pinzolo. 'They think we are all sheep and slaves, ready to wait for what they say in Brussels and Paris, but the League defends the Italians, because we are free men.' At this point Salvini has no choice but to play the next match against the opposition with the weapons he has available. His men have already made it known that they will pass nothing in the Parliament that comes from M5S-PD, but above all from those who sponsor them: Merkel, Macron and Ursula von der Leyen."
Salvini's political rivals relished his departure from government. Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, in a Facebook post, proclaimed: "Today, Salvini has left the political stage. Institutions 1 — Populism 0."
Salvini, however, has vowed to fight:
"While PD and others are fighting over government positions, we are preparing for the Italy that is to come from among the people. They will not be able to run away from the elections for long, let's get ready to win!"
"Do you think I am afraid of a few months in opposition?" Salvini asked in a Facebook video. "You have not got rid of me with your political games. You do not know me, I do not give in." He has called for a protest against the new government in Rome on October 19. Polls show that 67% of Italians are in favor of early elections.
International commentators agree that Salvini remains a political force to be reckoned with. International Business Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, noted that Salvini is down but not out:
"Be careful what you wish for in Italian politics. The exile of the volcanic Matteo Salvini is a Faustian Bargain for the EU establishment and the defenders of the euro project.
"There must be a high chance that the Lega strongman — and de facto leader of the Continent's anti-EU rebellion — will sweep back into power with an overwhelming majority next year or soon after.
"He may then be strong enough to push revolutionary changes through the Italian constitutional system that would be impossible sooner: A New Deal spending blitz backed by a politically-controlled Bank of Italy and a parallel "minibot" currency that neutralizes the enforcement tools of the European Central Bank.
"His departure this week means that others will be left to grapple with Italy's intractable stagnation. It is they who will have to push through €23bn of austerity cuts to comply with the EU's stability pact and the fiscal compact, the paraphernalia of arcane budget rules concocted by lawyers and unworkable in a serious downturn. Mr. Salvini's hands will be clean. 'It is a win-win situation for us,' said Claudio Borghi, the Lega's economics chief."
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán thanked Salvini for his efforts "benefitting Italy and the whole of Europe including Hungary." In a letter published by the Hungarian news agency MTI, Orbán wrote:
"We Hungarians will never forget that you were the first Western European leader to make an effort to prevent illegal migrants from flooding Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. Irrespective of future political developments in Italy and of the fact that we belong to different European party groups, we consider you as a brother in arms in the fight to preserve Europe's Christian heritage and stop migration."
On August 30, meanwhile, 62 Pakistani migrants landed on an island off Gallipoli in southern Italy. On September 1, Salvini, who remains acting interior minister, banned the Alan Kurdi, a ship operated by the German charity Sea-Eye, with 13 migrants aboard, from entering Italian waters. Another ship, the Mare Jonio, is anchored a kilometer from the Italy's southernmost island of Lampedusa with 34 migrants who were rescued on August 28 off the coast of Libya.
Salvini has warned that the new coalition would end his ban on migrant boats arriving from Africa: "If the PD wants to reopen the doors and allow the business of illegal immigration to start up again, it should tell that to Italians."