Snap Elections Are on Italy’s Mind, But Not on the Calendar

(Bloomberg) -- Political turmoil in Italy spurred snap elections in 1994, 1996 and 2008. Is another one around the corner? Near-constant sparring between unlikely bedfellows Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, who share power as deputy premiers in a populist coalition led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, is fueling speculation that their government could collapse. But politics, holidays and the budget could spare Italians a general election in 2019.

1. How bad are things in Italy’s government?

Salvini, head of the anti-migrant League, and Di Maio, leader of the insurgent Five Star Movement, seem to disagree on just about everything, including the country’s budget, its failing banks, a high-speed rail link to France -- even the deployment of trash incinerators in the southern region of Campania. The push and pull is strongest, however, when it comes to their landmark election pledges -- welfare benefits for Five Star, and a lower retirement age for the League. With an economic slowdown constraining the ability of both parties to deliver on promises, expect more tensions in the coalition.

2. Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Salvini has emerged as the stronger political force, campaigning vigorously in person and via social media against illegal immigration. His party, originally called the Northern League and once known for deriding residents of the country’s south as beggars, thieves and good-for-nothing rednecks, is now polling at 32.2 percent in surveys, compared with 25.2 percent for Five Star. That’s despite the fact that Five Star, a web-based anti-establishment party founded in 2009 by comedian-turned-activist Beppe Grillo, was the biggest vote-getter in the March election.

Snap Elections Are on Italy’s Mind, But Not on the Calendar

3. How are the other parties doing?

Trailing the League and Five Star are the center-left Democratic Party at 17.3 percent and the center-right Forza Italia party of ex-premier Silvio Berlusconi at 8.2 percent. If the League performs strongly in the European parliamentary elections set for May 23-26, Salvini could be tempted to cash in by trying to force a snap election -- and try to grab the premiership that eluded him when the government was sworn in on June 1.

4. Why, then, are early elections unlikely?

A snap vote early in the year would likely bump up against the European Parliament elections, and no one wants such votes too close together. (In the Italian system, a general election takes place between 60 and 70 days after the president dissolves parliament.) Still, in both Spain and Greece there’s talk of ballots being called to coincide with that vote, so it’s not impossible. During the summer, many Italians are at the seaside, in the country or far from home, and thus unlikely to vote.

5. How about a snap vote later in the year?

From October onward, an election would coincide with the fraught budget process, which last year caused a weeks-long standoff with the European Commission and ended with a parliamentary vote on the eve of the Dec. 31 deadline. “I don’t see President Sergio Mattarella allowing an election in the middle of the budget process this fall, so I think Salvini and Di Maio will stay allies for quite some time,” said Lorenzo Codogno, LC Macro Advisers Ltd. founder and a former chief economist at the Italian finance ministry, who sees early elections more likely in spring 2020 than in 2019.

6. What kind of government could an early election produce?

A strong showing could allow Salvini to dump Di Maio and instead govern with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, the far-right Brothers of Italy and possibly a breakaway Five Star faction. The League would be the dominant party in such a coalition and could have an easier time pushing through its preferred policies. But Salvini also has reason to be hesitant. “Going back to Berlusconi is a problem for Salvini because he wants to represent a break with the past,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University who sees a 50-50 chance of a snap vote this year.

7. Might Salvini and Di Maio stick together?

You wouldn’t think so, judging by their quarrels. But the chronic infighting is part of a successful recipe: each of the two politicians rallies contrasting slices of the electorate behind him. And the government is backed by close to 60 percent of voters in opinion surveys.

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