Watching Italy fills me with both joy and frustration.
Joy, because Lega leader Matteo Salvini is showing everyone how a national populist government should function. He keeps his promises on immigration. He constantly hammers the corporate and globalist elites. He uses constant rallies to keep momentum surging. Instead of winning an election and then getting into the defensive crouch beloved of Republicans, he stays on the attack and his party wins in regional elections. Keep in mind, Lega used to be a regional, quasi-secessionist party that is now the most popular party in the country.
Frustration, because Salvini is doing exactly what President Donald Trump has failed to do. President Trump has not kept his promises. He has not built the wall. He did not get rid of birthright citizenship with an executive order. He's instead promising gun controls and crackdowns on free speech. He has not defended his supporters. If you sacrificed and fought to get him elected in 2016, ask yourself honestly if you are better off now than you were in 2015.
But at least we got the embassy moved to Jerusalem!
Meanwhile, in Italy, a useful leader is showing how you do it. His populist government with the 5 Star Movement was always an uneasy alliance. But while the 5 Star Movement has mostly lost support, Lega has actually gained support. Salvini has now crossed the Rubicon, declared the government over, and wants elections.
The shock announcement follows a period of intense public feuding between the right-wing League and its coalition partner, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, and it throws the euro zone’s third-largest economy into deeper political uncertainty.
Salvini said in a statement he had told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who belongs to neither coalition party, that the alliance with 5-Star had collapsed after barely a year in power and “we should quickly give the choice back to the voters."
[Italy's Salvini pulls plug on government, calls for elections, by Giuseppe Fonte and Gavin Jones, Reuters, August 8, 2019]
Let's go to the polls.
Lega is currently polling ahead of all other Italian parties at 38%. It came to power as the junior coalition partner, but Salvini’s tough rhetoric has helped to boost its popularity in a country where immigration is a key issue. M5S has, meanwhile, seen its support drop and is currently polling third at 17%.
[Italy's government on the brink of collapse as deputy leader calls for elections, by Silvia Amaro, CNBC, August 9, 2019]
There are several ways this could play out. In theory, Lega could win an outright majority, but that's very unlikely. They could also win a majority in alliance with the center-right. It's also possible that Lega could join with the "far right" Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) party. Yet if the entire Italian establishment aligns against him, they could try to strip him of power altogether.
Salvini might prefer an alternative scenario of governing only with the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Fdl) if support for the two parties grows (Lega and Fdl combine currently for around 42.5% in opinion polls—close to the required figures for an outright seat majority). However, there is no assurance that President Sergio Mattarella would immediately call fresh elections if Lega exits the existing coalition. Mattarella could, for instance, first explore whether an alternative coalition could be formed between the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party.
[Outlook for Italy: Fiscal policy and instability in the government remain key sources of risk, by Dennis Shen, London School of Economics and Political Science, June 27, 2019]
As the blog above shows, a lot of people have seen this coming for a long time. It's a gamble, but Salvini is a bold leader. In the famously complicated Italian political system, so much depends on the specifics of the vote. A right-wing government in Western Europe would shock the political establishment perhaps even more than Brexit.