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January 21, 2020

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Watch out for Salvini

Every political system has its idiosyncrasies. In Italy, one is the habit of governing parties to change the electoral law every now and then. The other is the frequency of criminal trials against politicians in respect of actions they took while in office. Not only is this obviously unfair. More importantly, these activities have a spectacular tendency to backfire. 

The latest example is the decision of a Sicilian court to start proceedings against Matteo Salvini over a decision he took as interior minister not to allow people on a refugee ship to disembark. It will be up to the Italian Senate to lift Salvini’s immunity, a decision due next month. Yesterday a Senate committee voted to recommend the lifting of Salvini’s immunity. Astonishingly, Salvini is now calling on the Senate to bring it on. His own senators in the committee supported the lifting of the immunity. Salvini’s political calculation is that he has more to gain politically from a confrontation with the justice system than from hiding. His decision will energise his supporters, especially ahead of the crucial regional elections this weekend in Emilia Romagna, an erstwhile powerhouse of the Partito Democratico to the north of the country.  

Salvini’s calculation is rational for several reasons. Italy’s judicial system is one of the most politicised in Europe, but procedures take a very long time. Corriere della Sera explains this morning that, even if the immunity is lifted, the legal obstacles for a conviction are onerous. Salvini will first face a grand jury. And, if this goes against him, a three-stage legal procedure will start that will take years to conclude. It will continue well past the date of the next general election, which has to be held by the spring of 2023. 

If Salvini wins those elections, the situation will change. There is no way a court can convict a sitting prime minister with a large absolute majority. 

We recall how the courts went after Silvio Berlusconi, whose ultimate sentence was a ban from holding political office. This, however, happened after he left office. We also recall the announcement of a prosecution against the father of Matteo Renzi at a politically sensitive moment for Renzi, a court decision that was also widely interpreted as politically motivated. Renzi has since politically separated from the PD, and has become a potentially dangerous partner for the current coalition. It is entirely plausible that the two persecuted Matteos of Italian politics may end up in a coalition. 

We have commented before on several occasions about the frequent attempts by governing parties to change the electoral law in their favour. Such attempts never worked out as intended. We think it is deeply problematic for political majorities to meddle with the system in this way, often with the enthusiastic support of fanboys in the media and academia. 

His impending prosecution has given Salvini an opportunity to play victim, and to portray his battle as that of a martyr against the deep state. Salvini has even started a protest fast. The legal actions has put the Five Star Movements and its leader, Luigi Di Maio, in a position where they had to distance themselves from Salvini’s decision as interior minister. But they clearly supported it at the time because it was popular. 

The big illusion of Italian politics is the ability to defeat your opponents in other ways when you cannot defeat them politically. Beware of the law of unintended consequences.

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