The political scene is about to enter a critical juncture, in our view, for all the three key players: the two ruling parties (M5 and the League) and the largest opposition party at the moment (PD). Whatever happens in the next two months will have profound repercussions for the political equilibrium going forward, although we remain confident that an outright government crisis remains a remote scenario anyway.
On 24 January, the Catania court sought permission to start an investigation against Salvini, the deputy Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and leader of the League, to clarify the extent of the supposed wrongdoing by the minister last summer, when a migrant boat reached Italy on 15 August, but received permission to allow the migrants to disembark only five days later, including for the minors on the boat. The accusation includes kidnapping, illegal arrest and abuse of power – crimes that could trigger a prison term of 3-15 years, if found guilty. The court cannot proceed against Minister Salvini without the Senate granting “access”; more specifically, a Senate council would need to make a recommendation, and then a broader vote in the Senate would need to take place to decide whether the Catania court should suspend the investigation, carry on, or confirm the potential wrongdoing, but block the court from proceeding. The vote in the Senate is due by the end of February.
This development puts M5 in a very difficult position, in our view, and whatever it decides will reveal a great deal about its future political choices. At the moment, Di Maio, the deputy PM, Minister for Economic Development and leader of M5, is publicly supporting a vote in favour of allowing the court to proceed. If the party confirms this decision, the M5-NL coalition would not necessarily break apart, but M5 would send a strong signal that it is open for future negotiations with other parties, with PD being the only really viable alternative to the League. This choice, in our view, would not win it any favours politically as, according to a public poll by Eumetra, 50% of respondents see the court’s decision as politically motivated and, according to a survey by Tecne, 40% would like the M5-League government to complete their term (the share rises to 74% among M5 voters). Also, M5’s weak performance in the polls lately is not related to the coalition with the League, but rather to the party’s own internal challenges and tying itself to PD, which has no political momentum, being quite a risky choice currently.
If, instead, M5 supports a motion to block the investigation, it would tie itself to the League for the long term and any future cooperation with PD, assuming that it could be remotely viable, would become harder still. If M5 blocks the vote, it would be likely to come under fire, as the party has been in favour, in the past, of no immunity for politicians. However, in our view, it would be coherent with the more profound feature of the movement, which is: “politics from the bottom up” – if the majority of voters side with Salvini, the Movement should follow what voters want.
We suspect that the court will not be allowed to proceed against the minister. If an investigation is permitted, it is unlikely to trigger anything specific immediately, as the court is at a preliminary stage and, even if found guilty, Salvini wouldbe allowed several attempts to clear his name in the normal judicial process, before he would be forced out. However, the relationship between the two parties would certainly become a lot more tense and the League, in our view, would be likely tobegin focusing its energies on trying to win a future mandate outright. As the League is a more experienced and better organised party, the odds favour them, in our view.
If the court goes ahead with the investigation, we expect to see growing speculation in favour of PD, especially as the party seems to be heading towards appointing a new leader, the Lazio region governor Nicola Zingaretti, in the coming month or so. Zingaretti is a more popular figure than any of the key PD figures of the past two years, but he does not have robust party support, nor a clear and well-thought out growth plan for the country – this is a key bottleneck for all parties at this juncture. We see the “Zingaretti bonus” at 2-3 points on top of PD’s current approval rating: which means that the popularity of the party will rise to 21-22% at the maximum.