Italy's center-right leaders agree to talk to Five Star

Wednesday , March 14, 2018 - 12:50 PM

John Follain

(c) 2018, Bloomberg.

The challenge of constructing a workable majority in an Italian parliament contested by two populist groups and Silvio Berlusconi became clear Wednesday as so-called allies swapped mixed messages and veiled barbs.

The day began with reports of a blow up between 81-year-old Berlusconi and his coalition partner Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League and ended with Berlusconi trying to damp down talk of a deal to bring the anti-establishment Five Star Movement into government. In between markets were roiled by talk of a populist pact between Salvini and Five Star. Italy stocks were the worst performers in Europe, losing 1.1 percent.

In a situation offering investors only a slim chance of a positive outcome, an alliance between the right-wing nationalists of the League and Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio would be the worst scenario of all since their main areas of agreement are ramping up government spending and stirring up trouble for the European Union.

That prospect became more likely on March 4 when the League supplanted Berlusconi’s Forza Italia as the biggest group within their center-right coalition, putting the rabble-rouser Salvini in the box seat.

Their coalition is the biggest group in parliament overall, though Five Star is the largest single party. Both groups claim they’ve won the right to lead the next government, but neither has a majority. A handful of seats are still to be awarded as courts consider the result.

At a meeting in Berlusconi’s Rome residence to thrash out coalition strategy Tuesday night, Salvini and Berlusconi clashed over the idea that Salvini might seek support from Five Star for his prime ministerial ambitions, according to a report in La Repubblica newspaper.

“Do it, go ahead and do the government with the grillini,” the newspaper quoted Berlusconi as saying -- “grillini” is a nickname for Five Star members, derived from its co-founder Beppe Grillo. “We’ll go into opposition, we can’t wait to denounce your betrayal of the voters.”

Berlusconi’s office said there had been no tension at the meeting while Salvini’s office said the encounter was positive and cordial.

All the same, Berlusconi’s surrogate Antonio Tajani gave an interview to RAI radio during the morning in which he echoed his boss’s rhetoric. The head of the European Parliament, tapped by Berlusconi as a potential prime minister before the election, said the League wouldn’t do a deal with Five Star because some of their lawmakers had been elected with Forza Italia votes.

“They would never betray the commitment they made to voters,” he said.

When Salvini spoke to reporters in Rome during the afternoon, he initially suggested a deal with Five Star was still on the table.

“I can rule out that the Democratic Party will be included, they have been defeated,” he said. “Apart from the PD, all the rest is possible.”

But when pressed he insisted he’d only do a deal with Five Star if his coalition allies including Berlusconi backed it.

“It will be the coalition that decides,” Salvini said. “If others approach us, we will speak about it as a coalition, not as individual parties.”

Around the same time, Berlusconi spoke to reporters as he prepared to meet his lawmakers and slapped down the idea of cooperating with Five Star.

“I opened the door to them to chase them away,” he said. Attacks on Five Star were a mainstay of Berlusconi’s election campaign, during which he called them “a sect.”

Berlusconi told the lawmakers that he was trying to persuade Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, to consider a center-right government with support on specific measures from the Democrats, according to newswire Ansa.

The ruling PD suffered its worst-ever result in the elections. But with parliament split between three blocs, both the League and Five Star have been exploring the possibilities of some kind of deal.

One thing that was settled was a mandate for Salvini to talk to Di Maio and other leaders about the election of parliamentary speakers later this month. That process is due to begin from March 23 and will provide a first clue to possible new alliances in the legislature.


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