Italians have had ten prime ministers in the last 20 years. They may soon have another. Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, deputy prime minister, and leader of the League, is ready to pull the plug on a coalition government increasingly pitted against itself. The League and its coalition ally, the Five Star Movement or 5SM, are less ideological brothers-in-arms than sibling rivals forced to live under the same roof. Salvini and Five Star Leader Luigi Di Maio are two strong personalities who were never completely aligned to begin with – Salvini having represented Italy’s industrial north, Di Maio coming onto the national scene as the leader of a grassroots party with significant support in the agricultural south. The fault-lines broke into public view last week when the two coalition partners were on opposite sides of the Lyon-Turin rail project vote. The 5SM went home that day as the loser.
The party, however, has been losing a lot lately. It came third in the Abruzzo regional election this February and lost more than half of its support in the Sardinia regional contest. The party’s support is plummeting, with Di Maio himself calling a confidence vote after an electoral drubbing during the EU parliamentary elections. The 5SM is still technically the senior partner in the ruling coalition, with about twice the number of seats as Salvini’s League. But if an election were held today, Di Maio would be highly likely to lose his post and be banished to the minority.
For Salvini, the current power configuration in Rome makes no sense. The League scored impressive gains in the EU parliamentary polls, doubling its support and making it the most powerful party in Italian politics today. The ambitious nationalist knows a bad deal when he sees it, and right now, he is staring at a parliament where his party is still the junior member. It’s no surprise, then, that Salvini is spending his summer walking the beaches on Italy’s southern coastline posing for bare-chested selfies and ingratiating himself with ordinary Italians in Five Star territory. He is tired of pretending like the current government is worth saving. With the floor collapsing underneath Di Maio’s feet, you can’t blame a political shark for smelling blood in the water.
The numbers may be going Salvini’s way, but forcing new elections is nonetheless a gamble for the ambitious Italian politician. Throughout his political career, Salvini has been an effective carnival barker devoid of much responsibility. His current stint as interior minister is his first national portfolio, one he has used to boost his appeal across the nation as a resolute, ‘common man’ who will stand up for the Italian people against enemies foreign and domestic. He has milked his short time as minister for maximum political effect, guaranteeing that his name is constantly in the political conversation. You can’t mention the word ‘immigration’ without mentioning the name ‘Salvini’.
Being prime minister, however, is one big leap into another world. Salvini the one-issue candidate will be expected to be Salvini the statesman, a man who delves into problems that are outside his area of expertise. This wouldn’t be the first time a prime minister has entered office tackling new challenges. But for a country like Italy, whose economy is saddled with debt and riddled with silly political quarrels, it’s legitimate to ask whether a divide-and-conquer politician is the right person for the job.
Whether or not Salvini reaches the prime minister’s quarters, he has done something remarkable by transforming a secessionist party with niche support in the north into the most popular force in Italian politics. The ultimate test will be growing that support and proving to his fellow Europeans that the Italy First agenda isn’t a passing fad.