Matteo Salvini’s fate and the future of Italy

With the Five Star Movement in free fall, Italy’s ruling coalition is becoming increasingly fragile. However, it remains unclear if Lega will return to power. The opponents of Matteo Salvini on the left and center in Italy will attempt to keep him out through electoral reforms.

Italy’s Senate
Provided that the coronavirus crisis does not interfere with the proceedings, on March 29 of this year, Italy will hold a constitutional referendum over a plan to cut 345 parliament seats. © macpixxel for GIS

In a nutshell

  • The Lega leader remains popular throughout the country
  • His political opponents want to prevent him from becoming prime minister
  • On both ends of the spectrum, parties fail to address Italy’s economic issues

Emergencies call for leadership, and the coronavirus emergency is breathing new life into Italy’s left-of-center government. Yet recent local elections show the country is still solidly behind the populist Lega (League). Looking at numbers, it seems a matter of when, rather than if, former Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini will become the prime minister of Italy. Yet the Lega leader lost the regional elections in Emilia-Romagna on January 26, after an electoral campaign intensely focused on him personally.

The candidate of the center-left Democratic Party (Partido Democratico, PD), Stefano Bonaccini, won 51.4 percent of the vote while his Lega rival, Lucia Borgonzoni, only received 44 percent. The candidate for the populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S) received less than 5 percent of the vote.

Insignificant losses

Compared to the 2019 European election, Mr. Salvini dropped from 33.8 percent to 32 percent in the region – a rather insignificant loss of popularity, especially since the 2020 elections were a local matter and voters were concerned with different issues than in a European, or national, vote. Mr. Salvini ran an aggressive campaign that included stunts like ringing the doorbell of a Tunisian family in Bologna rumored to deal in drugs. His populist stance was on full display.

Emilia-Romagna has consistently voted for leftists since its liberation from fascism.

Emilia-Romagna has consistently voted for leftists since its liberation from fascism. In this region, like in Tuscany, the left keeps strengthening its grip on power thanks to a mixture of political hegemony and good government. Public services in the area are among the most efficient and appreciated in the country. So, if Mr. Salvini commands one vote out of three in a region that has no apparent reason to turn its back on the traditional governing party, how strong is he in the rest of the country?

Political rivalry

Mr. Salvini is perhaps his own worst enemy. In the short term, his political opponents are trying to keep him out of the government. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, former leader of a coalition government supported by the M5S and Lega, and now at the helm of a coalition government supported by the M5S and the Democratic Party, is understandably not looking forward to leaving office. His new, decidedly center-left coalition is precarious at best for several reasons. Firstly, the Italian parliament is becoming less and less representative of voter preference. Its biggest party, the Five Star Movement, has a number of representatives consistent with its 2018 electoral result, when it won 32 percent of the votes. It polls at barely 10 percent now.

More importantly, both the main parties in the coalition, the Democrats and M5S, have gone through a phase of internal rifts. Members of the M5S, populists at heart, are somewhat resentful of finding themselves allied with the arch-establishment Democrats. And vice versa. The more reformist wing of the Democrats seceded to establish a centrist party, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose future looks precarious at best. Differences will be hard to reconcile, especially when it comes to judicial reform. While M5S is attempting to abolish the statute of limitations, the Renzists are desperately defending what is left of due process in Italy.


Facts & figures

Italian Chamber of Deputies
The Five Star Movement is the best represented party in the Italian parliament, but its popularity has fallen sharply since the last elections. © macpixxel for GIS

Lega’s defeat in Emilia-Romagna galvanized Prime Minister Conte. He announced a constitutional referendum on March 29 that could cut 345 parliament seats (from 630 to 400 in the Chamber of Deputies and from 315 to 200 in the Senate). The outcome is easy to predict; Italian voters have long considered their government wasteful and will welcome the change.

The government looks forward to the change for tactical reasons. This remodeling of the parliament will make it more difficult for Mr. Salvini to convince members of other parties – most notably the Five Star Movement – to instigate a no-confidence vote and a new election before the parliamentary term officially ends. The 120 representatives of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia (translated to Forward Italy), which received only 2.5 percent of the vote in Emilia-Romagna), are bound to support this parliamentary term no matter what. The majority of them will likely never sit in parliament again.

In addition, Mr. Salvini is coming up with some bizarre proposals. During a recent meeting with President Sergio Mattarella, he criticized the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and suggested that a caretaker government could “bring the country to the elections”. Obviously, holding a vote during an epidemic is an easy idea to dismiss, and one wonders why the Lega leader even brought it up in the first place.

Rise of the right

Perhaps what Mr. Salvini fears the most is the rise of his ally, Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia). Ms. Meloni is also a career politician who was first elected in Rome’s provincial council in 1998. She held a cabinet position in the fourth Berlusconi government (2008-2011) and has since taken a hard line against caretaker governments and austerity.

Ms. Meloni is investing a good deal of time in shaping some international alliances with the conservative groups in the United States. Increasingly popular, she went from 4.3 percent in the 2018 national elections, to 6.5 percent in the 2019 European elections, to currently 10 percent in the polls. She is benefiting from the collapse of Forza Italia, whose voters are now leaning further right. She is also famous for her nationalist, anti-immigration and anti-austerity rants but, unlike Salvini, she does not cultivate a Che Guevara look. On the contrary, Ms. Meloni comes across as the responsible “God-Motherland-Family” type and as such, she might appeal to voters in southern Italy, where her party has its roots. She is now a junior partner in the right-wing coalition, but this could change. While Mr. Salvini may have peaked at 32 percent, she still has to realize her full potential.

Electoral reform

A less apparent problem is the political fragmentation that could be triggered by electoral reform. In 2018, national elections took place under rules that allocated 37 percent of seats according to a first-past-the-post electoral system and 61 percent using proportional vote. (The remaining two percent are assigned.) Lega and M5S voters arguably disliked the government formed by both parties, but it emerged as a consequence of maneuverings in parliament.

In the short run, the left may keep Mr. Salvini from becoming prime minister.

Likewise, today, the voters of the Democratic Party may not like M5S, and vice versa, but they can govern together because their numbers are sufficient to keep the government afloat, regardless of how their voters feel about this strained alliance.  

The new government is considering getting rid of the 37 percent first-past-the-post relic, opting for full proportional representation, not unlike the system Italy had up to 1992. The threshold parties will need to reach to enter Parliament will be contentious. A higher percentage will help bigger political forces to remain where they are, while a lower number could mean parties will Balkanize on both the right and the left. Even with a higher threshold, parties may want to split into smaller autonomous groups as soon as they enter parliament to be able to blackmail the future government to their advantage.

Based on the Italian experience, a system solely based on proportional representation makes politicians less accountable to voters’ expectations – and allows the parliamentary strategy to thwart voters’ preference.



Mr. Salvini’s fate is thus far from being decided. Meanwhile, the future of Italy is becoming clearer.To make it through the last two years of the parliamentary term, the current center-left government only needs to rally around some common proposal – essentially, an increase in public spending. As in other European countries, outlays are already being proposed under the label of a “Green New Deal.”

The coronavirus crisis could create a need to increase health spending, but also to compensate economic losses incurred because of containment measures. Since the north – the most productive region and therefore the one that carries most of the tax burden – is most affected, even a temporary tax break could turn out costly for the Italian budget. This could crowd out some new initiatives, assuming a minimal level of responsibility on the part of the government and some EU oversight.

On the other hand, no consideration is given whatsoever to supply-side reforms of the kind Italy has been needing for the last two decades. A potential halt in the north’s production activities due to the spread of the coronavirus would make such measures all the more needed.

This is also true on the right side of the spectrum. Ms. Meloni appears more responsible than Mr. Salvini, but economics is not her forte. Neither does it need to be, as she becomes more popular in the south, where the production sector is residual. On the other hand, former Deputy Prime Minister Salvini reigns in the north but keeps leaning toward vaguely anti-austerity statism. He evokes scenarios in which more robust public spending could be financed by inflation – which would only be possible by leaving, or at least threatening to leave, the eurozone. Even the usual lullaby of the Italian right, endlessly sung over the Berlusconi years, of cutting public spending by reducing waste, is no longer part of the political discussion. The coronavirus emergency will certainly require government aid in the short term, but it could also provide the momentum to finally carry out supply-side reforms in the longer term – if only someone proposes them.

In other words, the left and the right are both promising to manage Italy’s decline. They differ in identity politics but unite on blaming the country’s deteriorating economic situation on Europe, the Germans, austerity – everything except the poor policies they supported in the past, and plan to support in the future.

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