Mattarella stuck in quagmire over creation of Italy’s government

Both Five Star and alliance of centre-right and right claim status of largest party

Italy's president Sergio Mattarella has one hell of a dilemma. Normally it's simple. He asks the largest party in parliament to see if it can put together a workable government. If it should prove unequal the task, then the next party on the list gets a chance.

In Italy’s messy election aftermath, not only is there a hung parliament with no natural majorities waiting to be formed, but you have two claimants to the president’s “largest party” prerogative.

The Five Star Movement, a maverick anti-establishment force that almost defies description, has made its name from rejecting and not co-operating with others. It has 32 per cent of the vote and a straightforward claim to Mattarella's attention. Its leader, 31-year-old Luigi De Maio, has come off his go-it-alone horse and declared "We are ready for talks with all the other political forces."

And then there's the alliance of the centre-right and right which fought the election together, and came out with 37 per cent of the vote. Led by the old rogue of Italian politics, Silvio Berlusconi, of the centre-right Forza Italia, the alliance is also made up of the Lega, formerly Lega Nord (Northern League), and, distinctly further to the right, the Brothers of Italy, openly fascist admirers of Benito Mussolini's blackshirts.


The alliance says that its vote entitles it to the first crack at forming a government, but Riccardo Fraccaro, a Five Star MP, boasted to party activists: “Nobody will be able to govern without the Five Star Movement.”

And the permutations of possible government coalition are much broader. Both within Di Maio’s own party and outside it, there are those who would rule out some alliances, and perhaps any alliance.

‘Populist parties’

Adriana Ceretelli of Il Sole 24 Ore, the Italian daily, observes of the resounding success of Five Star and of Lega's advance that it is most surprising that "not only two big populist parties won the election, but the fact that the two parties are not similar nor compatible". Italy has been divided down the centre by the election and by the two parties.

Lega represents the wealthy north, hardworking taxpayers who resent corruption and the welfare “scroungers” in the south. Yet that is Five Star’s base, the impoverished unemployed who pay little or no tax and despise the establishment.

“For the first time you can see with your eyes,” Ceretelli argues, “that the country has never unified, because to some extent of the failure of the traditional parties. This is the main development of last night’s elections.” It is also why a Lega/Five Star government is impossible, she says.

Lega also has problems with its election ally, Forza. Before the poll, Lega's leader, Matteo Salvini, and Berlusconi agreed that whichever beat the other electorally would nominate the prime minister. And to everyone's surprise Lega did just that – Salvini is determined to claim his prize. On Monday he ruled out what he called "weird alliances" (ie with Five Star) and declared that "The centre right is the coalition that won and can govern."

Extreme politics

But the alliance's share of the poll is shy of the 40 per cent that is necessary to set up a viable government, and Salvini will have to cast a wider net for other supporters. His extreme politics will make that more difficult than it might have been for Berlusconi, and certainly rules out any possibility of support from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which currently runs the country.

Prior to the election there had been talk of a German-like grand coalition combining Forza and the PD, but the election has made that impossible. The PD’s share of seats was halved while Forza’s lacklustre performance would leave the two parties with barely 35 per cent of the vote.

A PD-Five Star government, on the other hand, is a mathematical possibility – between them they have a combined vote of 52 per cent – but there is very bad blood between them. The resignation of PD leader Matteo Renzi after this electoral fiasco does, however, open the door to the party's new leadership to extend the olive branch.

Five Star has already published its proposed ministerial team, however, and there is no room for outsiders in there – all it is willing to offer to a potential ally are the presidencies of the two houses of parliament. The hard ball has begun.

Little wonder that Mattarella, who will start the bargaining process only next month, would prefer just to leave the caretaker PD government of Paolo Gentiloni in place. But that’s only a very short-term option.

Italy’s political quagmire remains as intractable as ever.