ROME — This month Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant party, the League, announced he had it with his own coalition government and wanted new elections.
“I ask the Italian people if they want to give me full powers to do what we promised to do and go all the way without obstacles,” Salvini, still campaigning, told a rally on Tuesday. August 8.
But he seems to have underestimated a pretty big hurdle – an Italian parliamentary system that makes the US Electoral College look elementary and fishing around Brexit seems like a baby thing.
On Tuesday, a vote of no confidence requested by Mr. Salvini is scheduled against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. It would appear to mark the end of Mr Salvini’s rocky coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star movement, seal the fate of Italy’s 65th government since the end of World War Two and open the door to new elections.
But it’s not that easy, and so Italian politics has returned to the art it seems to have perfected, teetering on the razor’s edge where anything could happen, even nothing at all.
With his public reputation skyrocketing over the past year, Mr Salvini is perhaps Italy’s most popular political force outside the Italian parliament. But inside Parliament lies a parallel universe, where its power is frozen in an earlier, weaker time, and its enemies still dominate.
There are parties that are still represented in parliament, but have virtually disappeared from opinion polls. There are leaders who still wield enormous influence in the chambers, but who would crumble to dust in the light of national elections. There are MPs who have just settled for a five-year term and don’t want to risk losing their high-paying seats to rival parties, or even candidates competing with their own party.
While Mr Salvini would very much like to go to the polls to bolster his supporters in parliament and cement his grip on the government, the majority of MPs are in no rush.
Rather, Mr. Salvini’s electoral gamble has sparked a burst of energy among long-dormant political forces that have filled the past few days with enough conspiracy, connivance, deception and posturing to make Machiavelli proud.
In the parliamentary arena of pure power politics, ideologies and animosities are for amateurs. Interest is all that matters. And few are aligned with that of Mr. Salvini.
Even if the vote of confidence is against Mr Conte, or if he resigns before it can take place, President Sergio Mattarella is obliged to consult with the leaders of Italy’s political parties to see if another majority can be found. .
If no new majority emerges, then he could install a technocratic government or call new elections, probably for the fall.
For now, however, it has been a summer of speculation about the seemingly countless combinations of parties that could produce a new government without an election.
One possibility is that the Five Star Movement, which currently holds by far the largest share of seats in parliament, will join forces with the centre-left Democratic Party which it ousted from power.
Until very recently, both sides demonized each other as evil incarnate. But a power-up changes everything.
Over the weekend, leaders of the Five Star Movement met at the villa of a co-founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, on the Tuscan coast, to strategize. Almost everyone sitting at the table over beers and lemonades had their own agenda.
Davide Casaleggio, an unelected entrepreneur who owns the party’s internet platform, is seen as keen to avoid new elections that would most likely decimate Five Star’s ranks.
Alessandro Di Battista, the motorcycle version of Che Guevara’s party, is said to be eager for elections and a chance to claim the party leadership.
The party’s current political leader, Luigi Di Maio, 33, whose previous work experience largely consisted of working as an usher at a football stadium, is keen to keep his government job.
But the only thing they could agree on was that Mr. Salvini’s betrayal was too great to be forgiven.
“All those present agreed to define Salvini as no longer a credible interlocutor,” the Five Star Movement said in a statement, opening the door to negotiations with the Democratic Party.
A new coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party could mean Mr Conte could effectively keep his post, but as prime minister of a new government.
Or a new two-party coalition could opt for another prime minister and, as is always possible in Italian politics, Mr Conte could find himself out in the cold.
Another possibility is that Five Star and the Democratic Party are reaching out to another traditional foe to fortify their slim majority. Enter Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr Berlusconi, who is 82 and faltering, has a history of making deals with the Democratic Party, but he is the bane of the Five Star Movement, which he has branded as incompetent morons.
Mr Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, has fallen in the polls, and a new election would most likely cost most party members their seats in parliament. So he and they have a strong incentive to stay put.
Moreover, Mr. Berlusconi, a populist with no self-esteem problem, does not like the idea of being upstaged by Mr. Salvini.
Italian media have reported that Mr Berlusconi’s longtime lieutenant, Gianni Letta, is actively working behind the scenes to form a new coalition, possibly led by former Democratic Party Prime Minister Enrico Letta, who happens to be Gianni Letta’s nephew.
Others have speculated that – suddenly faced with the long calculations of Italian politics and the realization that his national support doesn’t matter much in parliament – Mr. Salvini may simply have miscalculated.
So there is the possibility that he can unplug the plug by unplugging the plug.
After pushing Tuesday’s vote of no confidence, there is still a chance that Mr Salvini will vote to preserve the government, and his job in it.
He has already prepared the justification by attacking his rivals, including his mortal enemy, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, for trying to block new elections.
“If you want to form a government with Renzi, you will have to step over my corpse,” Salvini said on television this week.
Mr. Renzi, who resigned from office in 2016 after losing a key referendum, is eager to return to political relevance and step on Mr. Salvini.
Mr. Renzi has his own calculations for not wanting an election now. Although he also resigned from the leadership of the Democratic Party, he still controls a large portion of the party’s membership in parliament.
If there are new elections, the new party leader, Nicola Zingaretti, will most likely replace them with his own candidates.
This led Mr. Renzi to overcome his once seething opposition to the Five Star Movement, which he accused of spreading hate and misinformation on the web to undermine it in the past.
“Five Stars is not a democratic movement,” Mr. Renzi said on Facebook on July 22, adding, “I will not give my vote of confidence to a Democratic Party-Five Stars coalition. Those who want to try can do so: but no one can prevent me from raising my voice against it, which is my right. And my duty. You can give up a seat, as I have done on several occasions, but you cannot give up your dignity.
But that was last month.