Why Italy is still searching for a leader two months after elections

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Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Italy has seen the rise of two rival populist leaders, Luigi di Maio (L) and Matteo Salvini, as seen in this Rome mural

Since Italy became a Republic in 1946 there’s been a steady predictability to its politics.

Citizens vote, no single party gets a majority, everyone negotiates, then a coalition government is formed.

The system relies on give and take, and compromise.

For decades, this has kept things moving, and prevented the country from ever having to call a second election in the same year. Since 1946 Italy has had 19 general elections, the same number as the UK.

But, in 2018, Italy’s system has got stuck.

Two rival populist groups, the anti-corruption Five Star Movement and the anti-illegal migrant League party, came out ahead in the 4 March general election.

Neither of the two party leaders has any experience in national government.

Luigi di MaioFive Star Movement

Five Star was co-founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009, as an anti-establishment movement dedicated to fighting against corruption and professional politics.

The movement is now led by 31-year-old Luigi di Maio, a former law student and volunteer steward at Napoli football club.

Mr Di Maio is keen to show that he lives like a normal citizen. During weeks of coalition talks, he drove himself to the president’s palace in a small, silver car, instead of getting chauffeured in a black limousine like traditional politicians.

Matteo SalviniThe League

The Northern League was founded in 1991 as a breakaway movement for Italy’s more wealthy northern regions. In 2013, Matteo Salvini took over as leader, and turned the regional movement into a national party, aiming to lead the country it had previously wished to leave.

Matteo Salvini, 45, also claims to be a non-traditional politician. He makes a deliberate point of being ill-at-ease in a suit, barely ever doing up the top button of his shirt while wearing a tie.

Image copyright EPA
Image caption The Five Star Movement of Luigi di Maio (L) emerged as the biggest single party in the March vote while Matteo Salvini’s League leads a centre-right coalition

What is different this time?

The emergence of Five Star and The League is a reflection of Italians’ unhappiness with a system that has left the country with weak economic growth of 0.3%, chronic youth unemployment of around 32%, and worries about social cohesion.

During three rounds of talks after the general election, Italy’s President, Sergio Mattarella, tried to work out various configurations of a potential coalition government. But no-one was ready to back down.

So, an exasperated president has now had to resort to suggesting his first back-up option: the formation of a so-called neutral, technocratic government to see the country through to the end of the year.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption A technocrat government ran Italy in 2011-13 implementing unpopular austerity measures in response to the country’s financial crisis

As a stop-gap measure, this has sometimes worked before – most notably when the economist Mario Monti replaced Silvio Berlusconi in 2011. But this is normally the tactic a president uses to replace a government in mid-term, not one to deploy right after a general election.

What will happen next?

To no-one’s surprise, Five Star and The League show no interest whatsoever in agreeing to a caretaker government. Between them, they have the votes in parliament to defeat the president’s suggestion.

Five Star and The League each want to skip straight to the president’s final option – the calling of an unprecedented second general election in the same year. There’s a simple reason for this: each party thinks that it can improve its own position in a second vote.

But what if Italians vote exactly the same way they did in the first vote? The country’s seven-decade old system doesn’t really have a plan for that.

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