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Strange bedfellows: Can Italy’s battered left prop up a 'Five-Star' government?

Latest update : 06/03/2018

© Claudio Giovanninni, AFP | Not under his watch: Matteo Renzi has ruled out an alliance between his battered Democratic Party and the Five-Star Movement.

Article text by Benjamin DODMAN

For years, the Democratic Party has been the main target of the Five-Star Movement’s anti-establishment bile. But in the quicksand of Italian politics, an alliance between the two is now one of the few plausible options for forming a government.

He’s going, but not just yet. Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi said Monday he would quit the leadership of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) following its crushing defeat in Sunday’s general election. Crucially, however, Renzi added that he would steer the PD’s sinking ship until after a new government is formed.

There is an obvious reason for Renzi’s delayed resignation. He is desperate to avoid an unnatural alliance between his party and the election’s big winner, the establishment-bashing Five-Star Movement, which is in need of allies to secure a majority in parliament.

"The Italian people have asked us to be in opposition and that is where we will go," Renzi told reporters, adding that the Democratic Party would not be “a prop for anti-system forces”. Renzi, 43, said he would act as a "guarantor" that his party makes no compromise with the "wind of extremism" that has swept Italy.

Two winners, two losers, no majority

Sunday’s inconclusive vote produced two winners: the first is the Five-Star Movement, now unquestionably Italy’s dominant political force; the other is the anti-immigrant Lega party, which has supplanted Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as the biggest player on the right. Both have claimed a mandate to form a government, but neither has a majority in parliament.

The election also produced two losers: Berlusconi, who faltered in his latest comeback, and the Democratic Party, which has seen its support collapse after five gruelling years in power. Of the two, Renzi’s party has suffered the biggest blow, losing two-thirds of its seats in parliament. But its remaining 112 lawmakers are set to be the most coveted in the coming weeks of intense horse-trading.

"The key question for the coming days is what the PD will do," said Giovanni Orsina, a political analyst and professor of contemporary history at LUISS University in Rome, in an interview with AFP. "Neither the right-wing alliance nor Five-Star are able to form a government alone. The question is therefore what the third bloc will do.”

Video: What is Italy's Five Star Movement?

On paper, the Democratic Party can find more common ground with the Five-Star Movement than with the centre-right coalition, particularly one dominated by a Eurosceptic and increasingly far-right Lega. There is room for convergence in some areas, including environmental protection, the fight against corruption and economic policy – though in each of those cases, Five-Star harbours more radical views.

According to Luciano Fontana, the chief editor of the Corriere della Sera newspaper, Five-Star’s economic platform “is not only left-wing, it is almost far left, [...] featuring greater protectionism, a universal basic income for the poor, boosting public investments and freezing privatisations”. Some analysts have suggested a smaller left-wing party, called Free and Equal, could be thrown into the mix as a “glue” to hold Five-Star and the PD together.

On the other hand, there are also major policy differences between the two, cautions Pierangelo Isernia, a professor of political science at the University of Siena. He notes that Five-Star draws support from both the left and the right – and rarely speaks with one voice.

“Five-Star has a very ambiguous stance on the European Union and it wants to shred the budgetary constraints Italy has signed up to [under the Democratic Party],” Isernia told FRANCE 24. “Some of its members even want to quit NATO.”

‘Suicidal’

For the time being, the principal obstacle to a rapprochement remains Renzi himself. On Tuesday, he challenged party members favourable to a deal with Five-Star to “come and say so openly”. The fact that Renzi hand-picked his party’s candidates in most constituencies means most of the surviving PD lawmakers are likely to toe the line, at least for now.

But some dissidents have already begun to push for a change of tack. Michele Emiliano, governor of the Puglia region and a leading critic within the PD, said his party could offer "external support" to a Five-Star government. In an interview with Il Fatto Quotidiano daily, Emiliano berated Renzi for not stepping down immediately.

"In order to hang on, he is willing to stall the political system," Emiliano said.

'A seismic shift in Italy's political landscape'

Should the likes of Emiliano eventually prevail, both the Democratic Party and the Five-Star Movement will be wary of alienating voters. The refusal to compromise with “corrupt” establishment parties has always been Five-Star’s guiding principle. Any perception of cosy deals is bound to anger many of its core supporters. Conversely, the PD will find an alliance with the political upstarts a hard sell after all the abuse it received while in office.

Sceptics on the left are also bound to point out that being the junior partner in an awkward coalition can be a recipe for disaster, as Germany’s Social Democrats discovered at their expense after two bruising spells in a grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives.

“An alliance with Five-Star could be a suicidal partnership for the PD,” Isernia warned. “Such unbalanced coalitions have always been to the detriment of Europe’s left-wing parties. And in this case, it would mean playing junior partner to an extremely unpredictable bedfellow.”

One boot, two legs

There is another imbalance Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella will have in mind when he begins formal consultations with party leaders later this month – one dictated by Italian geography and the enduring divide between the prosperous north and the lagging south.

That division was exacerbated by Sunday’s election, which saw the right tighten its grip on the north and Five-Star sweep the south, with the left barely holding on to a sliver of territories in the centre. In Sicily, where the centre-right coalition won regional elections only six months ago, Five-Star’s victory was so emphatic it didn’t even field enough candidates to fill all the seats it won.

“Italy has always been governed on two legs: the southern leg and the northeastern one,” said Isernia, referring, in the second case, to the country’s industrious northeast, home to many of the small and medium-sized businesses that have long formed the backbone of Italy’s economy.

“The Christian Democrats [who ruled postwar Italy until the early 1990s] and then Berlusconi’s various governments had both those legs, but the centre-right has now lost the southern leg to the Five-Star Movement,” Isernia added.

Himself a member of the Democratic Party, President Mattarella may be tempted to reach out to his party colleagues and ask them to guide the inexperienced Five-Star Movement in their first attempt at government. On the other hand, he will be wary of leaving the wealthy, powerful and increasingly right-leaning north of the country feeling unrepresented.

“If Five-Star teams up with the PD, it would be the first time we have a government without the northern leg,” said Isernia. “At this point, anything is possible. But I very much doubt it would produce a stable and lasting administration.”

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