Thursday was the darkest day yet for the current government, and the word on everyone’s lips was “crisis.“ No one took it for granted, but everyone saw it as very likely.
One can hardly reach any other conclusion when one of the two vice-prime ministers, the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, accused his counterpart of having “betrayed the voters by casting their vote for [European Commission President] von der Leyen,” of being “already in government with the Democratic Party—in Brussels, for now,” and said that Di Maio had “lost my trust, also on a personal level.” Or when the other vice-prime minister, Luigi Di Maio, replied by accusing his coalition partner of making noise for the sole purpose of “covering up the case of the Russian funds,” and then, at a meeting with the M5S group leaders and higher-ups, saying that “we’ve been stabbed in the back. This is extremely serious.”
Both sides are speaking openly about a government crisis: “If the Lega wants to bring down the government, it should come out and say it,” said Di Maio bluntly. “We have merely noted the historic about-face of the M5S,” Salvini answered from Helsinki, after having already made it clear that “forging ahead alongside those who insult you and say nothing except ‘no’ is difficult,” that the possibility for snap elections will remain on the table even after July 20, that a crisis would necessarily lead to early elections, and that “Mattarella is the one who guarantees this fact.” To further underline the seriousness of the situation, the Lega leader also announced he would not take part in the upcoming meeting on regional autonomy and in the next government meeting.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is keeping away from the brawl. On Thursday, La Repubblica ran an open letter he wrote, full of attempts at self-justification and highly critical of the Lega, both in the matter of the Strasbourg vote for the President of the European Commission and regarding Salvini’s decision to dodge answering before Parliament in the Russian funds scandal—but all of this couched in diplomatic language, and saying nothing more than was absolutely necessary. That was not enough, however, to avoid Salvini’s open ire: “I did not appreciate the letter, which speaks of a ‘betrayal.’ I do not like challenges that border on insults”—even though the “betrayal” accusation was found only in the title, which was gratuitously slapped by the newspaper onto a document which had an entirely different tone.
But that, of course, is beside the point. Salvini’s virulent ire, against Conte even more than against Di Maio, is mainly on account of the Strasbourg vote. Conte himself handled the negotiations in that matter, and it all turned into a trap for the Lega. As it has become abundantly clear, the Prime Minister did not in fact ask Angela Merkel to ensure that von der Leyen’s speech would be such that the Lega could support her, as a condition for her to get the votes from the two main Italian parties. Conte did not uphold the notion that the Italian majority would vote together, which would have forced Ursula von der Leyen to avoid a full-on attack against the Lega Nord on pain of losing her confirmation vote. In this way, whether due to his inexperience or out of calculation, Conte left the Lega without any face-saving options.
“What were we supposed to do? Vote for someone we’re disgusted by?” Salvini said. And it’s hard to blame him. Even the matter of choosing the candidate for Italian Commissioner has turned into a quagmire. Giancarlo Giorgetti, Salvini’s preferred candidate, is off the table. On Thursday morning, the Five Stars reproached the Lega for wanting to name a Commissioner from their own ranks after voting against the Council President. Salvini replied angrily: “Who cares about the Commissioner? Cohesion is more important.” Di Maio, knowing that a Lega candidate would have a hard time getting majority support in the European Parliament, replied with malice: “No, really, they should name the Commissioner. They won the European elections after all. It’s their responsibility.”
The Italian Russiagate scandal is merely an illustration of the fact that when it rains, it pours. When Conte speaks before the Senate on Wednesday, his words could be the detonator that triggers the government crisis. Renzi’s crew is itching to jump the gun and file a no-confidence motion immediately. However, the majority would rather wait for the Prime Minister’s speech. Off the record, sources from the Lega say there’s a 70% chance of a full-blown crisis, although they insist they want to get the “Security 2” decree approved first, which should pass the Senate around August 8 or 9. On Thursday, Giorgetti met with Mattarella; there was a rumor that Salvini himself might go up to the Quirinale Hill on Friday, but this did not materialize. If the crisis really does come, the fate of the current legislature is at stake.
In any case, the President will act in his customary manner. He will not force anybody’s hand. He will not try to impose alternative majorities, like Napolitano would have done. He will try to see if there are any loopholes to avoid snap elections, he will try to apply moral suasion, but he will only act publicly if he thinks he has a more than reasonable probability of success. Otherwise, he will avoid any open challenge, which he believes would be disastrous for the country. Thus, the ball will remain in the court of the parties involved: the M5S, which, irrespective of its denials, would probably be willing to pursue an alternative majority, and the Democratic Party, which appears too torn and divided at the moment to agree on a political strategy. For now, the signals coming from their side do not bode well for the survival of the legislature if Conte’s government falls.