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The federation within the Italian right, what are its real objectives?

Matteo Salvini

Although it has not yet materialised, it is only a matter of time before the union within a federation of two of the three centre-right forces (Forza Italia and Lega) becomes a reality. The question is: what are their real objectives? We will try to shed some light on this, although we will not really know for some considerable time, which could even go to the end of the legislature, scheduled for February-March 2023.

Officially, this whole affair stems from Matteo Salvini's offer to Silvio Berlusconi to create a single force within the centre-right with which the two parties currently supporting the Draghi government (let us remember that Meloni's Brothers of Italy decided not to participate in this support and went over to an opposition, relative on the other hand, consisting of an abstention that is translating into very tempered criticism at all times). According to Salvini, the important thing is for both parties to have a single voice with respect to the current government, so as not to create distortion: both already have three ministers each in the Draghi government, and now all that remains is to create a federation in which both formations are present.

For some analysts, Salvini's intention is to be able to recover some of the ground lost in the polls of voting intentions, which have led him to lose up to 13 points since the European elections of May 2019, and thus be able to pull away from a Meloni who, to the perplexity of many, is only one point behind Salvini, when normally there would have been, at least, between ten and fifteen points in favour of the leader of the Lega. In turn, what Berlusconi is doing is, given his advanced age (he will be 85 in September) and his precarious state of health (he has already been hospitalised several times, in addition to having undergone two open heart operations in the past), "handing over" his party to Salvini so that the latter can definitively become his successor at the head of the centre-right: if Salvini also manages to push through Berlusconi's candidacy for the Presidency of the Republic in the election that will take place at the end of January 2022, then it would be a "no-brainer". But the reality is that not everything is as easy as it appears to be, and we will explain why.

The first thing to remember is that this federation within the Italian right-wing already took place during the 2008 elections: Berlusconi's Forza Italia and Fini's Alleanza Nazionale merged into a single candidacy, leaving out (like Meloni's party now) Umberto Bossi's then Lega Nord Padania. This alliance was a success, as they literally crushed their centre-left rival, the newly created Democratic Party (PD).

Fini was very confident that this form of federation meant, in practice, that he would become the successor to Silvio Berlusconi, who at the time was almost 72 years old compared to Fini's 56. But time proved that Berlusconi had no intention of retiring: much more astute than Fini, he offered him the presidency of the lower house, knowing that the leader of the Alleanza Nazionale (AN) would not be able to play politics at the head of an institutional post. You know how it all turned out: Fini ended up breaking with Berlusconi, the government would be intervened and replaced by an executive headed by Mario Monti, and so the end of the 2013 legislature was reached. While Berlusconi ran again and was less than a point behind the leader with the most votes (Pierluigi Bersani of the PD), Fini put a premature end to his political career and handed the party over to Meloni, who changed its name (it became Fratelli d'Italia) and began a solo career that has led him to lead the country's second largest party.

Salvini knows that this situation will not be repeated: Berlusconi is 13 years older than when the previous federation was created, while he is more than two decades younger than Fini. So, his belief (as Fini's was at the time) in becoming the new leader of the centre-right is quite realistic, but that does not mean that it will be a "bed of roses" that awaits him at the moment.

At first glance, what should happen is what Berlusconi and Salvini are looking for: to isolate Meloni (two Lombards against one Roman, the country's traditional rivalry between the cultural and administrative capital, on the one hand, and the economic capital, on the other) and move into a clear lead in the polls, which could go to 30% or more. Berlusconi would give Salvini what he needs, which is the centre-right and pro-European component that he needs for some voters to begin to trust him, while Salvini would pave the way for 'Il Cavaliere' to become the new tenant of the Quirinal, the culmination of a political career that has led the Lombard businessman and politician to become the person who has presided over the Council of Ministers for the longest time in the history of the Italian Republic (more than 3,500 days in four different governments). 500 days in four different governments).

But the reality is that this supposed "surrender" of his (Berlusconi's) party to Salvini has no reason to exist at the moment, because Forza Italia is in less bad shape than some believe. Beyond the fact that the polls give it at the moment half the intention to vote that it obtained in the 2018 elections, and that Berlusconi is already very old and in poorer health, the party has a sufficiently strong "head of the ticket" for Forza Italia to be able to obtain a good degree of support in the next general elections. And that is none other than Antonio Tajani, former president of the European Parliament and the person who has been the party's figurehead for years in the absence of a Berlusconi who is saving himself for the really decisive moments. Tajani, now 68, was little known in his home country three years ago, having spent his entire political career in the European Parliament, but now he has been seen much more and is seen to have the substance to lead the centre-right party. He has been in the negotiations to form a government in both August 2019 and February 2021, and, in the eyes of the party's main "heavyweights" (Mara Carfagna, Renato Brunetta, etc.), he is the man the former prime minister and now European parliamentarian trusts.

On the other hand, the formation continues to have a lot of parliamentary weight: it is true that in the Senate it has lost a dozen members, but its current 52 senators are only outnumbered numerically by a Five Star Movement in permanent disintegration and by Salvini's Lega. And, as we have said, in the Draghi government its three representatives (Brunetta, Carfagna and Gelmini) are outnumbered only by the four representatives of the Five Star Movement and are equal to the three representatives of the Lega and the three belonging to the Democratic Party (PD). And, of course, the party's powerful media apparatus remains at its disposal, with several television channels and a newspaper (Il Giornale) among them.

Mario Draghi

The question then is: what is behind this pact? Beyond leaving behind an uncomfortable Meloni (pay attention to the transfer of voters from the Brothers of Italy to this right-wing federation), Berlusconi is probably looking for two main objectives. The first is for someone from his party (probably Tajani) to become the new president of the Republic: let us remember that he already tried to do so in 2006 with his "right-hand man" in all his governments (we are talking about Gianni Letta, undersecretary of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers), but in the end he did not succeed and the presidency went to the ex-communist Napolitano, who had already been president of the Lower House between 1992 and 1994. 

Tajani meets several of the fundamental requirements to be elected as the new president of the Republic: a convinced pro-European, his current age of 68 is the age at which the new head of state is traditionally elected (the current president, Sergio Mattarella, was 73 when he received the honour at the end of January 2015). He has very good contacts at the EU level (which is what is really important for a president of the Italian Republic, considering that Italy is the third largest economy in Europe); he has hardly any detractors in national politics, having been outside it; and he has a very good presence to be the new tenant of the Quirinale. His only weakness is that he has never been either prime minister or minister, but Pertini, president between 1978 and 1985, and Napolitano, also president between 2006 and 2015, had never been either, and despite this they were elected heads of state.

Some will ask: if Meloni, in response to the isolation to which she will be subjected, decides to abstain or even vote against, will that right-wing federation be able to push through the candidacy of Tajani or some other Forza Italia candidate, since Berlusconi himself will most likely not be in a position to try to be elected? The answer is yes, because that right-wing federation is counting on a party to make up for Meloni's votes. And that party is none other than Matteo Renzi's Italia Viva, who has very good relations with Berlusconi and gets on rather better than one might think with "il altro Matteo" (Salvini). And Renzi's party has almost the same number of MPs as Meloni's: around 50 between the two chambers. All this without forgetting the support that the Per la autonomia parliamentary group, whose members belong to the South Tyrol People's Party and are, in practice, a kind of right-wing but autonomist ideology, could provide.

The second objective Berlusconi would seek would be for Salvini, who will have a wide margin for action, to introduce the current Forza Italia MPs onto the lists, as he wants to find room for those who have been loyal to him at all times (as opposed to the Tremonti, Alfano and company), and with Tajani as head of the ticket this would be more difficult. The same thing that Matteo Renzi is looking for, on the other hand, who knows that in a coalition of the centre he has nothing to do at the moment and must look for those who have followed him and made it possible for him to have his own party.

It is clear what Salvini would achieve in exchange for all this: to become, at last, and after two decades of political career, the new prime minister, and with a whole legislature ahead of him. He has already been everything but "premier": councillor of the capital of Lombardy, MEP, senator, deputy prime minister and interior minister, as well as leader, since December 2013, of the Lega. He knows that the next elections will be his last chance to become president of the Council of Ministers, and he can do it. He has already taken the first step, which is to abandon anti-Europeanism to embrace European integration through his support for the Draghi government. Now comes the second, which will be to bring forward the candidate requested by Forza Italia. And he is within reach, although we will not know for sure for another seven months. Let Italian politics surprise us once again, the umpteenth time since the Italian Republic was founded in June 1946.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana' (1946-2021) (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021).