Italy: A duel between egomaniacs

In Italy, the European Parliament election campaign is barely about Europe. Instead, the leaders of the two ruling parties, Salvini and Di Maio, are campaigning against each other. The Italian press looks on in dismay.

The Italian flag in front of the European flag. (© picture-alliance, ROPI)

Since the parliamentary elections in March 2018, Italy has been governed by a coalition few would have thought even possible before the elections - least of all the parties themselves. But for lack of alternatives the far-right League party and the populist Five Star Movement concluded a pact: the so-called "Contract for a Government of Change."

They actually seemed to like each other for a while. But the honeymoon was soon over. In the run-up to the European elections a bitter battle has broken out between the two partners, Matteo Salvini (League) and Luigi Di Maio (Five Star). Instead of wooing each other they are vying with each other for the voters' support and arguing vociferously over a scandal involving a junior minister, the high-speed train between Turin and Lyon, the celebrations to mark Liberation Day and the security decree – to name just a few bones of contention. For the daily La Repubblica this shows how little the two parties really have in common: "This is the result of the coalition agreement. It is an artificial and unpolitical mechanism which does not reconcile the two different world views but brings them together in a protocol that can never be a joint interpretation of the country, its potential or its future."

Di Maio wants to change course

The balance of power has in effect been reversed. The League has seen its share of the vote double according to polls, whereas Five Star, which with 32 percent of the vote was once the senior coalition partner, has suffered crushing losses. "Ahead of the elections Five Star is cutting a poor figure, weakened by polls and poor results in local elections. A loss all the more painful in view of the huge gains the League has made," Corriere della Sera remarks. "With frequent direct attacks against his coalition partner Di Maio is trying to turn the tables," the daily adds, concluding: "This is an interesting election campaign with which the Five Star Movement is trying to avert a looming debacle."

Ruling parties in the role of the opposition

In this climate, the European elections have become "an acrimonious referendum on them [Salvini and Di Maio]," the Turin-based daily La Stampa writes. "In so doing, not only are they assuming the role of the opposition in addition to their government function - which is a highly effective PR tactic - but they're also going a step further: inducing voters to focus solely on the choice between Matteo Salvini and Luigi die Maio."

But it is Europe that is losing out – because European topics are being sidestepped in the election campaign. Salvini is concentrating on the refugee problem, which he sees as a threat to domestic security, and Di Maio is focusing on the integrity of politicians, which has long been a favourite topic of the Five Star Movement. La Stampa draws a sombre conclusion: "The result is the complete absence of the public debate that is currently taking place in other countries – from Spain to Germany and from France to Poland – about the reform of the EU. The deafening silence on the subject of Europe in our campaign is explained by the fact that not the conflict between the majority and the opposition, but the conflict within the majority is at the centre of this contest.

Social democrats face a dilemma

Alternatives were lacking in the general election of 2018, and this state of affairs still hasn't been remedied. This is because the two big losers of that election, Silvio Berlusconi's conservatives and Matteo Renzi's social democrats, are still licking their wounds. The latter's Democratic Party (PD) may have a new leader in Nicola Zingaretti, but the internal party divisions are far from resolved, writes Corriere della Sera: "If the PD achieves a strong and clear success in the European elections, and the government collapses because of this, the PD would face a new dilemma. Should it try to negotiate with Five Star?" Corriere goes on to explain what this would mean for the social democrats: "At this point, with the same inevitability with which Newton's apple fell to the ground instead of floating in the air, the Democratic Party would split up again."

Eva Clausen

Eva Clausen

is the euro|topics correspondent in Italy. After completing her A-levels she travelled to Italy and has been living in Rome since 1980. She studied English literature and language and art history in Rome. She worked for a literary agency, in film, in theatre and for various publishers. Since 1995, she has focussed on journalism, working for RAI in Italy, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Handelsblatt, Der Standard and Die Zeit and mainly covering art and culture, society, and travel.

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