Italy’s political centre is crumbling as the far-right steps into an ideological vacuum

The resignation speech of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, with his estranged Interior Minister Matteo Salvini beside him, was an acknowledgement of all that could go wrong with an opportunistic alliance between a far-right nativist party and a professed ideology-less anti-establishment group. When the 5-Star Movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo and Mr. Salvini’s League joined hands after last year’s elections in which no party got majority, the plan was to keep establishment parties away and offer a populist alternative. But for Mr. Conte, the technocrat Prime Minister who is not a member of any party, governance was not easy with contradictions within the coalition often coming to the fore. While the 5-Star Movement lacked any ideological alternative to offer other than its anger towards Italy’s centre-left and conservative establishment parties, Mr. Salvini pushed for his party’s “Italy-first”, anti-immigrant, anti-EU agenda. As Interior Minister, he banned migrant ships. He also challenged the EU fiscal orthodoxy by calling for tax cuts and spending rises, which appealed to the electorate still reeling under the effects of the debt crisis. The League party, a junior member in the coalition, came first in Italy in the election to the EU Parliament with 34% vote.

The current crisis was triggered by Mr. Salvini’s decision to withdraw from the coalition. With opinion polls suggesting that the League could get up to 38% of the popular vote if polls are held soon, Mr. Salvini is on course to become Prime Minister. But may be not immediately. The 5-Star Movement has indicated that it is open for talks with the centrist Democratic Party. If they stitch up an alliance, the League will be out of power for at least three years. But the problem is that even if another coalition is formed, it would not be the answer to the country’s problems. An alliance between the 5-Star Movement and the Democrats would be another odd marriage, like the populist coalition that collapsed just now. It would also allow Mr. Salvini to pursue his hard-line nationalist politics freely from the opposition, preparing himself for the next election. In fact Mr. Salvini’s rise, from a regional leader in northern Italy to a popular nationalist political figure now, is also the story of Italy’s political and economic crisis. When establishment parties shy away from addressing structural economic issues, the crisis opens avenues for anti-establishment forces. Italy’s political centre is crumbling. The Left is weak. The 5-Star Movement doesn’t have an ideological programme. Mr. Salvini, whose hard nationalist views echo the far-right politics on the ascent in Europe, seems determined to exploit the Italian crisis.