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What will happen to the Italian centre-right?

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With the continuity of the Draghi government confirmed, born on 13 February last year, and on the basis that there will be no "rimpasto" or "rimpastino" (reshuffle, in short), the issue that most affects the Italian political class is the future of the centre-right, which has emerged from the presidential election strongly divided and with accusations among them that we could consider increasingly "thick".

We already know that Forza Italia is not exactly happy with Salvini's performance in the various votes. The leader of the League decided that Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati should be voted in as candidate for the Presidency of the Republic when the party leadership told her that it was not a good "scelta" (choice), since the most temperate sector was against her and the so-called "snipers" (parliamentarians who vote against their own party) could proliferate, as was the case. In the end, Casellati was not elected president of the Republic, she was "shot down" by almost six dozen parliamentarians (although Forza Italia believes that some of Meloni also voted against her) and what finally happened is that the main centre-right party, which has dominated this part of the parliamentary arc since 1996 until Salvini overtook it in the March 2018 elections, gave an image of division and decay that is usually very counterproductive for the average voter.

But, in reality, both Forza Italia and Salvini's League agree that the enemy to beat within the coalition is precisely Meloni's formation, which was, until recently, the "younger" brother of the three by far. Because the reality is that, at the moment, polls in hand, Meloni is not only going to revalidate the current number of MPs, but could even triple them, despite the fact that in the next general ("political") elections both Houses will be reduced by a third.
sergio mattarella italia

Of course, Meloni and his Fratelli d'Italia have a major problem: they have been outside the "maggioranza" of the Draghi government since its inception, and it is proving increasingly successful in growing Gross Domestic Product (GDP), controlling the national debt (although it cannot prevent the risk premium from rising) and the increasingly comprehensive campaign to vaccinate the population. So Meloni may find himself, in the coming months, with a very tough campaign against him for an alleged lack of "patriotism": that the party representing Roman centralism and the Administration (as it was since the days of the National Alliance, defunct in 2013) is not supporting either the President of the Republic (whom he refused to vote for despite being the most supported after Sandro Pertini in the legendary vote of 1978) or the President of the Council of Ministers (Mario Draghi), may end up turning against him.

We have already commented on the offer of Giovanni Totti and his Cambiamento party to form a three-way coalition with Italia Viva and Forza Italia. It is true that Renzi, leader of Italia Viva, has not closed the door to the Democratic Party (PD), with which he is at the best point of understanding since the former Tuscan prime minister decided to leave in autumn 2019 to create his own party. But Renzi's alliance with the PD seems very complicated, because the leadership of this party is thinking before coalition with Five Star in the hope of being able to take many of its voters (remember that the "pentastellini" were voted for almost four years ago by one in three people who went to the polls, which of course will not happen again).

In reality, Renzi gives the impression that he will end up agreeing his coalition with the veritable amalgam of parties that moves between the centre-right and PD-Cinque Stelle: Piu Europa, Azione, Cambiamento, etc. However, given the ability of the young Tuscan politician, capable like few others of reinventing himself, anything can happen.

What would not be surprising would be if Forza Italia and the League ended up joining forces in a single formation, as the former did with the National Alliance: if on that occasion Umberto Bossi's League was left out, now it would be Meloni's party that would have to stand individually, without the possibility of coalition with anyone else. Whatever happens, and on the assumption that the calendar will not be altered, there will be two key moments prior to the general elections to see if this happens: on the one hand, the administrative elections in May-June, and, on the other, the election to the government of the region of Sicily. An island, Sicily, which has traditionally been considered a "test laboratory" for what is to come, and those who say this are right: to give an example, in October 2017 the centre-right won (giving the presidency to Nello Musumeci); the Five Star Movement experienced significant growth; and the Democratic Party (PD) was widely defeated, heralding the debacle of March of the following year.

The future of the centre-right will have as a key element the configuration of the electoral lists for the March 2023 elections: Salvini has practically no chance of getting all his current MPs to repeat (his party would need a third of the votes cast when current polls reduce this figure to 1/6), but he has to bring in the main exponents of Forza Italia if he wants them to form a coalition with his party. Of course, Forza Italia, a key formation in the European "popular" family, can give Salvini what he needs most: on the one hand, the centre-right and Europeanist component that he does not really have yet; on the other, the support of the most important business community, which is what has traditionally been behind Forza Italia. We will see how the negotiations develop, but the reality is that at the moment both forces seem determined to try to isolate Meloni, whom nobody expected, just a year and a half ago, to lead the national polls given the very small structure of the Brothers of Italy and, equally, the absence of relevant figures.
mario draghi-italia

And all this is no small matter, because the centre-right, which has not governed the country since 2008-11 (apart from specific stages such as 2014, when the "Pact of the Nazarene" between PD and Forza Italia was in force) cannot make the same mistake as it did in the presidential election: they had forty votes more than Renzi when, as prime minister, he had to face the presidential election at the end of January 2015. As is well known, Renzi managed to pull ahead of Mattarella's candidacy, who lacked a handful of votes to achieve a qualified majority (at that time a simple majority was enough, which he had already secured), and now, on the other hand, the centre-right, which needed only half a hundred more votes to have one of its own as head of state, had no choice but to join those calling for Mattarella's re-election.

And it should be remembered that, in addition to having won the March 2018 elections as a coalition, it has not only been almost five years ahead of the centre-left by almost ten points, but also that the latter is still in very poor numbers, without having held primaries and with a tradition of defeats that has made the PD the party that specialises in mercilessly crushing leaders: in almost fifteen years of life, it has had four incumbent general secretaries (all of them elected in primaries, highlighting the case of Matteo Renzi, who won them twice, once in 2013 and once in 2017) and four interim general secretaries. And now they are thinking of forming a coalition with a Five Star Movement that is never more divided, with a leader as new as he is questioned, and with the threat of being left as a completely residual force.

Let's not fool ourselves: if the centre-left managed to impose one of its own (Sergio Mattarella, outgoing president) for the Quirinal, it was on the basis of saying "no" to any offer of a pact from the centre-right. But now the issue on the table is quite different: winning general elections, and the PD has lost those of 2008 and 2018 and only narrowly won those of 2013. Of course, as long as the centre-right continues to put on a permanent show of internal warfare among its leaders, anything can happen. And what neither Forza Italia nor the League could ever have expected was that the "nice Meloni", that "little minister" for Equal Opportunities appointed in 2008 and failed candidate for Mayor of Rome in 2016, would be able to treat the other leaders on an equal footing. But that is what is happening, and for the moment the game is being won by Meloni, much to the chagrin of a Salvini who has run out of discourse: neither his attacks on irregular immigration nor his anti-Europeanism are working, and his populism and ultra-nationalism are becoming less and less effective. What was Salvini thinking when he decided to make friends with furiously anti-European leaders like Alternative for Germany, Sweden Democrats or all kinds of far-right formations!

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).