By Margherita de Candia (King’s College London)

As it is often the case, Italian politics turns out to be particularly absorbing. More than two months have elapsed since March general elections, and Italy’s main parties have yet to agree on the coalition that will lead the country’s 65th government (according to some, the first of Italy’s allegedly new-born Third Republic). Yet the lengthiness of post-election talks is not what makes the current situation original – as the latest coalition building in Germany proves. The real novelty lies in the potential outcome. In contradiction to the mutual and burning dislike of former days, the Five Star Movement and the League are negotiating the so-called contratto di governo (governing contract). Should such agreement materialise, Italy would break a new record in contemporary European politics: that of being led by the first fully-fledged populist government. But ‘populist’ label aside, what makes these two parties akin and what tells them apart? Looking at how they originated and at their ideology may help answer this question. As we shall see shortly, despite contingent similarities in the policy positions and in the communication style, the differences between them are profound and touch on their very raison d’être. Crucially, the latter may well determine whether this eventual joint experience would turn out a launchpad for further success or a slippery slope to electoral oblivion.

Same point of departure, divergent destinations
A well-known saying states, ‘Tell me where you come from, and I will tell you who you are’. The same logic applies to political parties: the purpose that drove their establishment may inform their follow-up development and possibly constrain their room for manoeuvre. It thus seems useful to briefly retrace the two parties’ history.
The Five Star Movement is the result of the successful encounter between late Gianroberto Casaleggio and Beppe Grillo. The former was an IT expert, whose deep knowledge of the web and mastery of online marketing strategies have helped the Movement build up a basin of supporters within an incredibly short time span. The latter is an irreverent comedian, whose satire and political incorrectness have swiftly entered in harmony with citizens’ disillusionment with the ruling political class, deemed responsible for the recent economic crisis. The Movement’s formal establishment in 2009 followed the success of Grillo’s blog – launched the year before – and the growing enthusiasm of his supporters, keenly active both online and offline. From the onset, Grillo’s party has presented itself as an anti-establishment movement run by and for citizens, refuting the label of political party, and vehemently attacking the so-called political ‘caste’. More recently, the party has “put a respectable face on radicalism”: that of Luigi Di Maio, elected leader of the Movement via online closed primaries in September 2017.
The history of the Northern League dates back three decades. This party – which recently dropped the ‘Northern’ bit in the name in line with the new nationwide appeal – was founded in 1989 by Umberto Bossi. At that time, Italy was about to embark on one of its most severe political crises, the so-called Tangentopoli. Being a newcomer, Bossi’s party could electorally exploit the crisis by claiming to come from outside the corrupt establishment. Twenty-three years later, the virtuous halo initially surrounding the Northern League was questioned by the internal crisis triggered by the party’s misuse of public funding and by a series of other scandals. Unsurprisingly, these events led to a dramatic electoral debacle in 2013. If once the party could pride itself on being an anti-cartel, incorrupt party fighting against the political establishment’s squandering, the 2012 crisis showed that the Northern League was not so dissimilar from its opponents. Only a thorough change of image could save the party from definitive disappearance. This was possible thanks to Matteo Salvini’s investiture. The change of leadership – accompanied by a profound political rebranding – helped signal a sharp distance with the previous party administration. As the remarkable success in the last general elections attests, under the new leadership the party has manged to arise from the ashes of previous scandals and to dethrone Berlusconi’s Forza Italia from the position of most voted, centre-right party.
Clearly, the two parties share a common trait: both started off as challengers of the establishment. Yet long are the days when the League could pride itself on being truly anti-system. In the past, the party has not refrained from allying with mainstream parties to form a government. This puts them in a very different position with respect to the costs and benefits of joining forces. If for the League allying with the Five Star Movement would not been perceived as a rupture with the past, for the Movement this move would put an end to one of its core features: the anti-caste rhetoric. Predictably, the two electorates feel differently about the possibility of coalescing. (In this regard it should be noticed that both parties have some leverage, Di Maio being the leader of the most voted party, and Salvini heading the most voted coalition of parties.) As a recent survey reveals, only 63 per cent of Five Star Movement’s electors supports Di Maio’s coalition talks, whereas Salvini’s conduct is backed up by 92 per cent of League’s voters.

The unequal price of compromise
The Northern League and the Five Star Movement have at times taken on similar positions concerning topical policy questions, such as immigration and European integration. Does this point to a similar ideology? The answer is a resounding ‘No’. Beyond specific policy positions, remarkable are the differences between their world vision. On the one hand, Salvini’s election has accentuated the party’s move toward the far-right end of the political spectrum, and gradually watered down its traditional federalist claims. Nowadays, this party is overtly right, as also shown by its European next-of-kin (notably Marine Le Pen’s Front National). On the other hand, the Five Star Movement has always refuted any ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ label, and adopted, in line with this claim, a chameleonic approach to policies. By sponsoring a diverse array of policy positions, the party has successfully appealed to a broader and diversified group of citizens. Yet, far from signalling the absence of a clear ideology, such programmatic flexibility lies at the very heart of the Movement’s system of beliefs (but this is for another time!).
Here lies the real difference between the two as well as the Five Star Movement’s Achilles heel. By coalescing with the League, not only does the Five Star Movement chips away at its anti-caste identity, but it also takes a clear standpoint. Indeed, compromising with a party whose ideology is clearly geared toward the right means giving up a strategic tool: ambiguity. It goes without saying that this is likely to upset numerous supporters, notably those whose political sensibility leans toward the left. Uneasiness has already been expressed after the leadership changed the party manifesto (notably its Foreign Policy section), previously approved by online vote of Five Star Movement’s members. Coming right after the last general election, this move was possibly aimed at signalling to the world that the Movement could now responsibly lead the government of the Italian Republic. Still, being against the very idea of direct democracy, this top-down change came at the expenses of coherence. The latter may be further questioned should the party assume government responsibilities, which would more likely be accompanied by further centralisation. Crucially, such headaches do not afflict the leadership of the League, a party with an overtly centralised structure.

Who wins and who loses?
All in all, the stakes seem different for the two parties. Whilst the Five Star Movement risks undermining its core features (anti-caste identity, ideological ambiguity, and direct democracy vocation), the League has got freer hands. As of today, one week since talks between the two parties have resumed, it remains to be seen whether the League and the Movement will eventually find an agreement. What is clear is that nothing is sure until the very end: ‘politics is the art of the possible’, and this is even more so when it comes to Italian politics.

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