Government formation in italy: new elections after all

The formation of a government in Italy has failed. President Mattarella has rejected the finance minister proposed by M5S and Lega.

President Sergio Mattarella on Sunday evening in Rome Photo: dpa

Italy’s new government has collapsed before it even came into being. More than that, the country is facing a serious institutional crisis, an unprecedented clash between the two prevented governing parties, Movimento5Stelle (M5S, 5-Star Movement) and the Lega, on the one hand, and President Sergio Mattarella on the other. And instead of a government supported by a majority in parliament, Italians will now have new elections.

The starting signal for this crisis came at around 8 p.m. on Sunday, when the prime minister-designate, the non-party law professor Giuseppe Conte, declared after a final conversation with Mattarella that he had given back the mandate to form a government. The president had previously approved almost all of the cabinet list presented to him by Conte – with one important exception, however. He vetoed the appointment of economist Paolo Savona as finance minister, fully aware that the Lega and Five Star would never accept this veto.

The two parties accuse Mattarella of abusing his constitutional rights by putting his foot down and of trying to influence the substantive direction of their government. The M5S and the Lega had won the March 4 parliamentary elections with 32.7% and 17.4 % and, in long negotiations, agreed on a government program as well as on the party-less Conte as head of government. Until then, the dialogue between the two anti-establishment parties and Mattarella had been reasonably free of tension, and the relationship between the young M5S leader Di Maio and the head of state was described as almost harmonious.

But the harmony ended on Thursday, when it leaked out that the leader of the right-wing populist Lega, which is as hostile to foreigners as it is to the EU, Matteo Salvini, wanted to see 81-year-old economics professor Paolo Savona appointed finance minister. Savona is actually a man of the Italian establishment through and through, the economist enjoys high recognition in his guild, he was once before minister in the cabinet of technicians under Carlo Azeglio Ciampi in the years 1993-1994, he had headed large companies as well as the banks’ deposit guarantee fund.

Categorical refusal

Nevertheless, the old gentleman has a decisive flaw in Mattarella’s eyes. In the past, he has been extremely critical of the euro, which he sees as a misconstruction in which Germany benefits and Italy suffers. In a television interview from 2010 that has now been rebroadcast, however, one can by no means see a slobbering anti-European, but rather a man who argues for the expansion of the EU into a political union, since this is the only way the euro can be sustainable in the long term.

Savona, however, also took the right to think about a "Plan B" for Italy should the common currency fail. This was too much for Mattarella, who feared that his appointment as finance minister could send a fatal signal to Europe that Italy had now filled this key post with a person who is very skeptical about the euro. But the president bit the bullet with Lega leader Salvini. Salvini immediately made it clear last week that the Lega had no plan B for filling the post of finance minister. Instead, he said, the entire government formation process would collapse and the country would be forced to hold new elections if Mattarella stuck to his no vote on Savona.

It was of little use that Luigi Di Maio of the M5S tried to mediate until the last minute, little use that Savona himself published a statement on Sunday saying, "I want a different Europe, a stronger Europe, but also a fairer Europe," little use that the M5S pointed to the coalition agreement in which the two partners had committed themselves to keeping the European treaty obligations.

But Mattarella stuck to his categorical rejection of Savona. On Sunday evening, he had his last fruitless conversation with Conte. He could not accept the "uncertainty of our position in the euro" that had "caused alarm among Italian and foreign investors," he said, adding that it was up to him "to protect Italian savers" to explain his no vote on Savona.

Technicians for government formation

This no immediately earned him extremely harsh reactions from the Lega and the M5S. Di Maio expressed outrage that in Italy you can become a minister if you have a criminal record, but not "if you have criticized the euro," and added: "Then let’s make it clear that it’s useless to vote, governments are decided by the rating agencies, by the banking and financial lobbies." At an M5S rally, he went a step further and demanded that Parliament initiate impeachment proceedings against Mattarella, also to "avoid popular reactions." He himself had been loyal to the Constitution, "not I have betrayed it tonight," he added in an open reference to the head of state.

Threatening tones were also heard from Lega leader Salvini, who, while not talking about impeachment, said "tomorrow we want a date for new elections, otherwise we will come to Rome," blatantly announcing street protests. What kind of election campaign would then be in store for Italy can already be foreseen. While the issue of Europe played no role at all in the last election campaign, it is likely to become central in the next round, along with the frontal attack by the two anti-system parties on the president, who in their eyes has cheated the voters out of a government supported by them by a majority.

First of all, however, Mattarella plans to give the job of forming the government to a technician on Monday, former IMF director and former government commissioner for savings in the state budget Carlo Cottarelli. He is unlikely to succeed in finding a majority in parliament, which would leave him with the task of leading the country to new elections in September or October. The Lega, in particular, has high hopes of this. It has gained as much as 25 percent in the opinion polls in recent weeks, and with some certainty the anti-establishment parties would again have a majority in the new parliament.

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