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POLITICS

League victory in EU vote strains Italian government

“The fuse that will lead to the government's collapse has been lit”, said Italian political experts on Monday following the League's EU election triumph.

League victory in EU vote strains Italian government
Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini arrives to cast his ballot at a polling station in Milan on May 26, 2019, as he votes in European parliamentary elections. Photo: AFP

The success of the eurosceptic, anti-migrant League party at the European elections has raised questions in Italy over the current populist coalition government's future.

The League won more than 34 percent of the Italian vote, compared to just six percent in the 2014 EU elections and 17 percent in the Italian general election last year.

The results confirm the reversal of fortunes of the League and its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which took 32.5 percent at the general election but took home just 17 percent on Sunday.

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“We can expect a week of frenetic negotiations to see how everyone will reposition themselves,” said Giovanni Orsina, politics professor at Rome's LUISS University.

The League victory and M5S collapse in popularity “is explosive in terms of the consequences for government stability,” political analyst Stefano Folli wrote in the Repubblica daily.

“We're not talking tomorrow, or the day after, but the fuse which will lead to the government's collapse has been lit,” he said.

READ ALSO: How EU elections could lead yet another Italian government to collapse

The League snapped up votes from both the M5S and the opposition, with a hardline stance on migration and a savvy multimedia team bombarding Italians with selfies of leader Matteo Salvini.

The party did particularly well in centres seen as migration “hot spots”, including a town held up as a model of integration.

“A miracle”

Salvini's victory had been widely expected, despite the M5S taking advantage of embarrassing corruption scandals involving the far-right party.

The interior minister sparked an outcry at a rally in the run-up to the vote by holding aloft a rosary seen by many as a gratuitous prop, and calling for the Virgin Mary to carry him to victory.

“Salvini was convinced he could do it. The (corruption) investigations made the League lose five to six points, but then he pulled out his rosary. And perhaps he really did get a miracle,” Marco Valbruzzi from the Istituto Cattaneo research institute said.

Inside a polling station in Milan before the 2019 EU elections. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP

M5S head Luigi Di Maio suggested the League had got one over on it because of political attacks which initially went unchallenged.

Salvini – who celebrated by tweeting a photo of himself grinning and holding a sign saying “top party in Italy” – is now likely to try to force the M5S's hand on every plan it has contested since the coalition formed in June 2018.

“I ask for an acceleration on the government programme,” the 46-year-old said, brandishing Roman Catholic rosary beads.

The main questions at stake are a high-speed rail line between the cities of Turin and Lyon in France, and a flat tax proposal.

“Too silent”

“Perhaps we were too silent, too pure at the beginning, and if that was our mistake I take responsibility,” he said Monday.

The results place Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in an increasingly difficult position. The leader agreed upon by Salvini and Di Maio is purportedly independent but was a M5S pick.

Analysts say Salvini may be tempted to break up the coalition and join forces with others on the right.
“I'd say the possibility of autumn elections is over 50 percent, unless there's a very strong alignment of the M5S with the Salvini leadership, which would create enormous tensions within the Movement,” Orsina said.

Italy's small far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) party took home 6.4 percent of the vote, while billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party, a historic ally of the League, pocketed 8.8 percent.

“Salvini may pull the plug if he feels confident enough in getting an outright majority by siding with Brothers of Italy and part of Forza Italia (without Berlusconi),” said Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist at the Italian Treasury Department.

The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which won just 18 percent at the general election, took 22.7 percent of the vote, clawing back some votes from M5S.

The Green party, which recorded significant gains in many other European countries, took just 2.29 percent.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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