- - Monday, August 12, 2019

ROMEItaly is on the brink of switching out its experiment with populism for an alternative with much deeper roots: far-right nationalism.

Matteo Salvini, Italy’s fiery, wily deputy prime minister and head of the anti-immigrant Northern League, the country’s largest political party, has said his party’s uneasy 14-month-old coalition with the populist, anti-establishment 5-Star Movement has become unworkable.

With the League surging in the polls, Mr. Salvini has called for snap elections that pollsters say could make him prime minister. That most likely would put him in partnership with the heirs of Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, which ran Italy from 1922 to 1943 and disastrously allied with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Italy’s other parties said Monday they were putting off a no-confidence vote for now, but few think that will derail Mr. Salvini’s ambitions in the long run.

An eventual vote could put one of Europe’s most intriguing and divisive figures at the helm of one of the European Union’s biggest economies, making Mr. Salvini the most visible and successful of a wave of anti-immigrant, euroskeptic politicians who have been roiling the continent’s politics for years.

Even his opponents concede his rhetorical and political skills: He began his campaign for an election with an unconventional but eye-catching tour of Italy’s crowded beaches, where he told August vacationers that he was open to a center-right coalition with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and appealed to voters tired of ineffectual coalitions in Rome.

“Italians need certainty and a government that does things, not a ‘Mr. No,’” he said last week while declaring a formal break with his uneasy governing coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, and saying he would seek new national elections.

But the timing is a problem for Mr. Salvini. Parliament is on its summer break, which could delay the make-or-break confidence vote for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Furthermore, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, who is expected to address his plans next week, may wait for the country’s 2020 budget to be put into place before dissolving Parliament and allowing new elections.

“There are a lot of uncertainties at this point. Mr. Mattarella could try to pull together support for a caretaker government led by a respected figure like [outgoing European Central Bank President] Mario Draghi,” said Alessandro Polli, a professor of economic statistics at Rome’s La Sapienza University. “He could try to find a way to form a new government without dissolving Parliament.”

But Mr. Polli and other analysts said the smart money is still on elections either this fall or, more likely, early next year. If that happens, most indications are that the League would perform well enough for Mr. Salvini to become prime minister.

Steady rise

Under the 46-year-old Milan native, the League’s fortunes have improved dramatically by riding a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and skepticism toward the European Union.

The party garnered 4% of the vote in the 2013 national elections just before Mr. Salvini’s ascension to party leadership. It rose to 6% in voting for the European Parliament a year later, to 17% in last year’s general election and to 34% on the European Parliament vote in May. Now, pollsters say, the League’s support is approaching 40% of the electorate, putting Mr. Salvini in the driver’s seat in any new government.

The 5-Stars, a party that reveled in its unconventional approach to politics, has fared far worse in its alliance with Mr. Salvini. The party’s support shrank from nearly 33% in the 2018 elections to 17% in the European elections in May.

A pact with Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) — the neo-fascist party that counts Mussolini’s granddaughter Rachele Mussolini among the ranks of its parliamentary delegation — could be enough to give the League a majority and mark a major political break for Italy.

“If the next government is made up of the League and Fratelli d’Italia, it would be among the most nationalist, euroskeptic governments the European Union has seen in one of the six countries that founded what became the European Union 62 years ago,” said Oliviero Fiorini, a political affairs analyst with ABS Securities.

Parallels between the League and the political shift fashioned by President Trump in the U.S. are not hard to spot.

The North Italy-based party’s motto is “Italians first,” and Italy’s version of a wall on the southern border is the closing of Mediterranean ports to migrant rescue ships bringing in what Mr. Salvini calls an “invasion” of arrivals from Africa and the Middle East.

Mr. Salvini often speaks with nostalgia about the version of Italy “our grandparents left us,” a reference to the country’s postwar economic boom before the founding of the European Union. The League favors a more accommodating stance toward Russia amid reports that Mr. Salvini and his allies have found common cause with the Kremlin.

Mr. Salvini faces risks in coming days despite poll numbers.

Nicola Pasini, a political scientist with the State University of Milan, noted that Mr. Salvini and his allies could get the blame if the crisis produces a prolonged period of confusion and chaos.

“Historically speaking, the party that makes a government fall is punished if there are new elections soon after,” Mr. Pasini said. “If they force the government to collapse, Salvini and the League could be punished when people go to the polls.”

Leaders of the 5-Star party already have reached out to center-left parties that were decisively ousted last year, with talks of forming a “caretaker” government in the short term as a way to block Mr. Salvini and approve a budget.

“I am convinced there is a majority for an institutional government in a position to save Italy,” former center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi told the Corriere della Sera daily and Canale 5 television over the weekend.

Potential anti-League coalition partners met Monday but apparently failed to reach an agreement. The Italian Senate is returning to Rome on Tuesday to take up Mr. Salvini’s call for a no-confidence vote.

Italy faces an end-of-October deadline to draft and approve a budget. The problem: Whichever government is in power will have to find nearly $26 billion in revenue to avoid a deeply unpopular increase in the country’s national sales tax from 22% to 24%. Mr. Salvini also has called for a flat tax on personal and corporate income as a way to stimulate the European Union’s slowest-growing economy.

If a technocratic government draws up the 2020 budget, then the focus will be on deficit reduction. That means the scheduled sales tax increase would almost certainly proceed and the flat tax plan would be scrapped. Analysts said it would be easy for opponents to blame those developments on Mr. Salvini.

None of that seems to weigh on Mr. Salvini, who has been in campaign mode since he and the rest of the Conte government took power in June 2018. When he is not in Rome pulling political levers, he is either at the beach posing for selfies with supporters or hosting political rallies in vacation spots.

“I will live and die as a free man; I will not be a slave to anyone,” Mr. Salvini said at a rally last week in reference to the European Union. “We refuse to go to Brussels with our hats in our hands.”

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