(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If an alien landed in Rome today, he would think Matteo Salvini was running Italy. The leader of the right-wing League has seized the center stage of Italian politics, even though he is merely deputy prime minister, interior minister and head of the junior party in its governing coalition.
Five Star, the League’s senior partner in the new populist administration, is entirely to blame for this. The movement has been outmaneuvered comprehensively since Italy’s government was formed three weeks ago. Unless it finds a way to manage its unruly ally, Italy will keep drifting rightward and Five Star will keep losing ground.
Salvini has adopted the Donald Trump tactic of making outrageous statements daily. In the past few days, he has said he wants to hold a census of Roma people, “close” tax arrears for those owing the government less than 100,000 euros ($116,000), and threatened to remove police protection from Roberto Saviano, a writer on the mafia who dared to criticize immigration policy.
There’s been action too. Last week, Salvini turned away a boat carrying 629 migrants from Africa. He followed this up on Thursday by saying he won’t let rescued migrants disembark from the foreign NGO ships operating between Sicily and North Africa. This puts Italy at odds with much of the rest of the EU — to the delight of the euro-baiting Salvini.
One holdout against his radicalism is the finance ministry. Giovanni Tria, the technocratic minister, says he intends to keep Italy in the euro and the budget deficit under control. But Salvini has succeeded in promoting two opponents of the monetary union, Claudio Borghi and Alberto Bagnai, to run key economic committees in parliament. That spooked investors, who sent Italian bond yields higher.
Prime minister Giuseppe Conte and Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio are missing in action. Conte mixed with world leaders at the G-7 meeting in Canada, but has failed to stamp his authority on Salvini at home. Di Maio, who is industry and labor minister, has tried some headline-grabbing ideas of his own, such as a proposal to give greater protection to gig economy workers. But he has been overshadowed completely by Salvini in the battle for the airwaves, and has proven incapable of making any concrete change in government. Five Star’s golden boy looks leaden.
The League’s dominance is already affecting the polls. In the March general election, Five Star won 33 percent of the votes, and the League 17 percent. Now the two parties are neck-and-neck in opinion surveys, with one putting the League ahead. This hands Salvini an even greater advantage. If he were to collapse the government, perhaps by claiming it’s not radical enough, he would have wind in his sails for a new election.
He could reassemble the failed center-right alliance (with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy) and might even dream of an outright majority. Conversely, the Conte administration may be the best chance that Di Maio and Five Star has to govern. In a way, they are in a lose-lose situation. If they attack their ally, they risk a government collapse and going back to the polls in a position of weakness. If they stay silent, they risk falling further behind.
Salvini’s strategy has risks, of course. His constant TV presence may backfire. That happened to former prime minister Matteo Renzi, who was always on the airwaves before Italians decided they’d had enough of him. In the event of an accident involving a migrant ship, Salvini would no doubt be blamed. Italians may question eventually why he spends so much time on Facebook Live rather than governing.
Still, Five Star can’t just sit and hope that Salvini implodes. Di Maio is callow, but after his resounding election victory, Five Star must show voters that it can deliver some of the change it’s always promised.
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