23 May 2019

Ahead of this week’s European Parliament (EP) elections, the competition between the Italian government coalition partners, the right-wing Lega and anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), is very visible.

On 18 May, Salvini showcased his European ambitions by holding a rally in Milan along with Eurosceptic parties from France (Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National), Germany (Alternative for Germany or AfD), Finland (Finns Party), Denmark (Danish People’s Party), and others. The parties’ message was to claim that they are the “real” Europeans, while the “extremists” are “those that have been ruling Europe for years.”

However, with their nationalist slogans (the rally was full of ‘Italy First!’ posters), it is unclear how they are planning to form a new pan-European group and cooperate together, as explained in a recent Open Europe briefing.

Meanwhile, the Five Stars are also planning to form their own group in the EP and have disassociated themselves from Salvini’s positions on Europe, which Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio describes as “extreme” and “dangerous for the interests of Italy.” He said he hopes for Lega to abandon its anti-migration focus and “return to normal” after Sunday.

But the polls paint another picture, suggesting that EP elections results will boost Salvini’s confidence both at home and at the European level.

Despite a recent decrease in popularity, Lega is still predicted to win with around 32.1% of the votes, while M5S are polling at 22.7%, and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) at 21.54%. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia is predicted to gain 9.25%, while the far-right Brothers of Italy are polling at 5.5%.

Salvini described the vote as a “referendum between life and death” and has suggested that if Lega gets more than 20%, it means Italians are satisfied with the party.

In the last few weeks there has also been visible tension between the two parties and their leaders over domestic issues, including Salvini’s ‘Security Decree’ proposal and the Five Stars’ ‘Family Decree’ to allocate aid for families – which Salvini is blocking. The discussion of both decrees in the Council of Ministers has been delayed until after the vote, due to the tensions. Moreover, a Lega official, Under Secretary Armando Siri, was recently sacked from government over a corruption scandal, which made matters worse.

69.2% of Italians think that under current political conditions, the government is unlikely to continue and only one in five think the coalition will last until the end of its term (four more years). 60% of Lega voters are predicting a break up of the coalition before the end of this year.

Where next for Salvini’s ambitions?

Even though he claims that these elections are “only about Europe” and changing the future of the EU, the way that Salvini interprets EP elections results is likely to affect the domestic balance of power.

There is some speculation that if Lega’s vote share goes beyond 35%, Salvini would be willing to end the coalition with the M5S. But this is a risky gamble.

First, 35% seems difficult for the party at the moment. Some Lega officials have suggested reaching even 30% is an ambitious target.

He would also need to form a centre-right alliance with Forza Italia, but Berlusconi’s party is polling at barely 10%. Moreover, a large majority (74.1%) of Italian voters say they would not support a united centre-right electoral alliance with Lega, FI and Brothers of Italy. 75.9% said they would not support an alliance with only Lega and Brothers of Italy.

Salvini could be confident enough to be seeking to revise the coalition government contract, agreed last year. For now, however, both Salvini and Di Maio insist the coalition will continue working together, and both are ruling out reshuffling ministries.

No matter how the results of EP elections are interpreted in Italy, we should expect more turbulence and instability within the coalition – and repercussions at the European level, with Lega cementing its position domestically and in the European Parliament.