(Bloomberg) -- The latest political crisis in Italy -- a country that has averaged about one government a year since World War II -- is steeped in betrayal and manipulation worthy of a classic Italian opera.
The most recent administration of the Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League Party lasted just 14 months, collapsing in acrimony when League leader Matteo Salvini withdrew his support for Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
With Salvini bidding to force new elections that could see him installed as premier, Conte resigned on Aug. 20. He did so only after delivering a scathing rebuke of his deputy, sitting by his side in the Senate. Conte labeled Salvini an irresponsible political opportunist.
In the days since’s Conte’s resignation, the Five Star Movement has begun courting the Democratic Party to form a new government that to thwart Salvini’s efforts to engineer a new election and keep the League from power. President Sergio Mattarella has given the parties until Tuesday to reach an agreement or he will call for new elections.
Here is a look at the key figures charged with attempting to bring some stability to the heavily indebted nation, at least temporarily.
The Italian presidency is generally a ceremonial post except at times of political crisis, when the head of state has broad powers to negotiate with political leaders to put together a new government, or to call elections.
Palermo-born Mattarella entered politics following the murder of his older brother by the mafia in 1980. He had a long career as a lawmaker, starting with the now-defunct Christian Democracy party and later for the Democratic Party, or PD. The 78-year-old has begun consultations with party leaders to see if a new administration can be stitched together.
He has indicated that he will only accept a new coalition if he feels it is a stable enough partnership to remain in power until the next scheduled elections in 2023. Reports suggest Mattarella is unlikely to reach outside the political arena and install a technocratic government, as has happened many times in the past. That likely means that if Five Star and the PD can’t reach a substantive agreement, Salvini’s power grab is back on track.
The Five Star Movement was founded by the former comic, who used humor and a caustic blog to channel public outrage over political corruption and incompetence. He gained prominence by telling audiences that Parmalat SpA, a major Italian dairy company, was a financial house of cards, charges that proved prescient when the company collapsed in one of Europe’s biggest bankruptcies in 2003.
In 2009, he founded Five Star and continued his attacks on the political and media establishment. The new movement advocated direct democracy, having members vote on a website for the party’s candidates and policy proposals. Support quickly broadened, with the party making headway in national elections and winning control of cities like Turin and Rome.
It went from being a thorn in the side of the establishment to the backbone of a governing coalition when it captured the biggest share of the vote in the 2018 election and formed an alliance with the League. Support faded as Salvini intensified his attacks on immigration that contributed to a surge in backing for the League. Grillo has withdrawn from everyday politics but still wields influence from the sidelines.
Luigi Di Maio
An early supporter of Grillo, Di Maio was voted into parliament in 2013 and became the youngest deputy speaker of Italy’s lower house at the age of 26. He was chosen as the political head of Five Star and its prime minister candidate in 2017.
After the party won the most seats in the 2018 election, Di Maio initially tried to convince the PD to enter a coalition and bury the hatchet after savaging the party during the election campaign. That bid failed and Di Maio turned to the League, eventually sealing a power-sharing deal with Salvini that saw both men serve as deputy premiers.
Tensions between the two were apparent from the outset. With their parties clashing openly on key policy issues, and Salvini’s popularity increasingly eclipsing that of Di Maio, the alliance soon became untenable.
Zingaretti took over as PD leader in March after a period when the party, which has its roots in Italy’s working class, hemorrhaged support, with loyalists defecting to more populist forces such as Five Star and the League.
President of the region of Lazio around Rome, Zingaretti has struggled to put his stamp on the party and has been forced to contend with the ambitions of Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister who continues to hold sway over many PD lawmakers. Zingaretti has indicated he is willing to put the bad blood with Five Star behind him. Such an alliance would prevent new elections and keep the League, at least temporarily, from gaining power.
The deal would also stop Salvini from having the final word on the choice of a successor to Mattarella, whose seven-year term ends in early 2022. While the two parties could find some common ground on increasing pensions and supporting workers, hammering out at a policy agenda cohesive enough to keep the coalition from imploding remains a major challenge.
Italy’s youngest prime minister at the age of 39, Renzi didn’t win an election, but took over in 2014 after toppling Enrico Letta in an internal party showdown.
The former mayor of Florence was seen as a fresh face who would adopt more free-market policies that would broaden the PD’s appeal to centrist voters and the business class. He was nicknamed “the Bulldozer” for his desire to overhaul Italy’s political establishment. But he failed to deliver on a plan to reduce the powers of the Senate to ease the passage of legislation and resigned in 2016 after losing a referendum on the overhaul.
Renzi maintains support among a number of PD reformist lawmakers, though is viewed with suspicion by figures like Zingaretti, especially over his role in toppling Letta. Regardless, keeping Renzi on side will be critical to any deal Zingaretti cuts with Di Maio.
The 44-year-old speaker of the Lower House of parliament has emerged as a possible compromise candidate for premier, who might be acceptable to both Five Star and the Democrats. Zingaretti, who insists that Conte cannot lead a new government, has offered Di Maio to back Fico, a member of Five Star, Corriere della Sera and la Repubblica reported Sunday. Despite his affiliation with the party, Fico played a key role in maintaining the peace between Five Star and the League. Originally from Naples, Fico has been with Five Star since the early stages of the political movement and has served in parliament since 2013. Prior to entering politics, he held jobs in communication and tourism and also worked in a call center.
There are many other figures to watch as the latest act in Italy’s ongoing political drama unfolds. With Zingaretti insisting that Conte can’t serve again as prime minister, the two parties are shopping around for acceptable candidates. Another name floated in the media is Marta Cartabia, the vice president of Italy’s constitutional court, who could become Italy’s first female prime minister.
--With assistance from Lorenzo Totaro and Jerrold Colten.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Davis in Rome at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at email@example.com, Iain Rogers, Rakteem Katakey
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