Italy's Populists Sideline Mainstream in Premiership Contest

(Bloomberg) -- After outmaneuvering establishment parties to emerge as lead negotiators in Italy’s search for a new government, the populist pair Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini seek to win enough support this week to justify their rival claims for the premiership.

Di Maio of the Five Star Movement and Salvini of the anti-migrant League, each short of a majority after the March 4 general elections, worked together to successfully sideline both Salvini’s center-right ally Silvio Berlusconi and the ruling Democratic Party in votes for parliamentary speakers.

Italy's Populists Sideline Mainstream in Premiership Contest

With President Sergio Mattarella expected to start talks with party leaders on April 3, any aspiring premier has to persuade the head of state that he commands a parliamentary majority. The pact sealed by Di Maio and Salvini, which saw Five Star win the lower house job and the center-right take the Senate on Saturday, has fueled a possible but difficult scenario which could see them rule together -- a prospect which worries investors and Italy’s European partners.

Asked whether he might govern with Salvini, Di Maio didn’t rule out the prospect. “We’ve shown we are open to everyone for the good of the country as long as the dialog remains focused on the priorities of citizens and not of politicians,” he told newspaper Corriere della Sera in an interview published Sunday. Di Maio listed tax cuts, pension reform, welfare for families and fighting youth unemployment as the main issues needing agreement.

Italy's Populists Sideline Mainstream in Premiership Contest

Di Maio’s Praise

Di Maio had only praise for his fellow negotiator. “Salvini has demonstrated that he is a person who knows how to keep his word,” said Di Maio, who added he’s ready to discuss measures with other parties, and signaled he could change the ministers he proposed before the elections, while he remains the candidate for premiership.

But Di Maio stuck to his refusal to meet Berlusconi, one of several obstacles to a pact between Five Star and the center-right. Five Star has long denounced Berlusconi, who is banned from holding public office until next year because of a 2013 tax-fraud conviction, as a symbol of a corrupt ruling class.

Salvini said on Twitter Sunday that it’s the center-right coalition which should indicate the next premier. The League leader has pledged that he would only join up with Five Star with the blessing of Berlusconi, who wants a tie-up with the center-left Democratic Party. What’s more, Five Star has its base in the depressed south of Italy and wants a universal basic income, while the League is rooted in the rich, industrial north and is pushing for a flat tax.

Reconciliation

In a display of reconciliation after a row which fractured their alliance, Berlusconi walked out of his Rome residence together with Salvini on Saturday. The vote for the speakers was “a very positive solution for preserving the alliance,” said Berlusconi. “There’s also an excellent personal relationship between us, so I believe I can look forward with serenity and confidence.”

Only the previous evening however, Berlusconi’s party had described as “an act of cold hostility” the League’s failure to vote for its candidate as Senate speaker, adding that it broke the coalition’s unity and revealed “a plan for a League-Five Star government.”

The quarrelsome bloc has yet to decide whether Berlusconi, Salvini and Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy party will meet Mattarella together, or separately.

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