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21/06/2018 15:15 BST | Updated 21/06/2018 15:15 BST

In Italy, Slash And Burn Populists Have Taken Over - But Who Has Taken Charge?

Stefano Montesi - Corbis via Getty Images

A proposal to carry out a census on Italy’s Roma communities is just the latest outrage in the first tumultuous weeks of the country’s new government. On everything from migration to trade deals it’s been picking fights left, right and centre, challenging anything in its path. Its slash and burn antagonism is here to stay, but a look back a few weeks earlier shows there’s a method to its madness.

When Luigi Di Maio – the 31-year-old leader of the Five Star Movement (M5S) – called for the impeachment of Italy’s President, Sergio Mattarella, on 27 May, he plunged the country into an unprecedented, and previously unimaginable, crisis. Mattarella’s veto of eurosceptic Paolo Savona as economy minister had spoiled plans for a “government of change” between the anti-establishment M5S and Matteo Salvini’s far-right Lega.

Cooler heads would soon prevail, with a coalition led by political novice Giuseppe Conte winning a parliamentary confidence vote on 5 June. But Di Maio’s attack on the very heart of Italian democracy still festers, raising questions about who is really wielding power in a country notorious for political instability.

Di Maio’s criticism was calculated, calling the President’s actions an “incomprehensible” subversion of democracy. “Let’s be clear, then. It is useless to vote because the usual lobbies will ultimately decide”, he said at the time.

Di Maio was sending a clear message that nothing was sacred and no one was invulnerable in the crusade against the status quo. This was a classic populist ploy, portraying a meddlesome elite as the enemy of the people and himself the true defender of democracy. More significantly, he was repositioning legitimate authority away from the institutions of state towards a partitioned government with two equal power centres to be split with his junior coalition partner.

In addition to both serving as Deputy Prime Ministers, Di Maio is now Labour Minister, Salvini Minister of the Interior. Despite common ground on key issues, this ensures they are each seen as addressing the grievances of their respective electoral bases while sharing equal control of a government only nominally headed by the actual Prime Minister. That Conte is a puppet under the thumb of his deputies is hardly a revelation, as a video of him being denied permission to go off script during his maiden speech artfully illustrates. What is surprising is the speed with which the power-sharing charade has unraveled. Whereas Di Maio had the strongest mandate with 32% of the vote following the March 4th election, it’s now Salvini who has emerged as the premier power player.

“Salvini’s narrative is effective, a narrative that is aggressive on migrants, aggressive on Europe, aggressive even against his own coalition partners. This is what has transformed him into the protagonist”, said Maurizio Molinari, Editor of La Stampa.

Perpetually in campaign mode, Salvini has courted controversy on the issues that attract headlines. In last week’s war of words over the fate of 629 refugees in the Mediterranean, he traded barbs first with Malta, then with France. The world took notice. Spain opened its doors. Salvini claimed victory. “Speaking up pays off”, he said. It hasn’t hurt in the opinion polls either, with the Lega now at 29% and surpassing M5S off the back of a 10-point bump since March.

For Molinari, “the Salvini narrative is based on adversaries.” This isn’t entirely out of place for a hardline party with ultra-nationalist roots. Di Maio’s, however, is ambiguous at best.

“On the one hand he supports the attacks against external enemies. On the other he’s attempting to build an electoral and economic base” in a tough political landscape, Molinari said.

M5S’ hybrid identity as “neither right nor left gives us the strength to talk to everyone”, Di Maio said before the election. Broad appeal may have worked then, but it’s not working as well now. Analysis by Professor Pierangelo Isernia and Gianluca Piccolini of the University of Siena shows deep divisions inside M5S’ base on some of the government’s flagship issues such as the EU and migration. In their view, the movement’s strength “could quickly turn into a major weakness for the policy coherence and credibility of M5S”. At the same time, its alliance with the extreme-right could continue to alienate some of its more progressive supporters. These pitfalls have been reflected in subpar local election results. They have also played into Salvini’s hands.

Which brings us back to Di Maio’s call for impeachment. The answer to who’s really in charge is no one, but that’s changing fast. If M5S continues to lose the narrative war the checks and balances of coalition will unravel. This could embolden Salvini to become more brazen, as with his call Tuesday to expel non-Italian Roma, overshadowing his populist bedfellow and further solidifying his authority over the government. Di Maio could try the same in a desperate race to the bottom to reclaim the initiative and outflank his increasingly confrontational partner.

Growing tensions, a government collapse and early elections remain another possibility. As Italy’s traditional political parties continue to struggle under the anti-establishment tide this would likely strengthen populist forces, especially the Lega. Either way, none of these scenarios portend political stability at home or a collaborative spirit abroad, which is troubling given jittery markets, tricky Brexit negotiations and an ongoing migration crisis.

The antidote may well be in the very thing Di Maio attacked. Though not without its faults, the Presidency has been instrumental in maintaining order amidst the volatility of 65 governments in 70 years. Where politics failed, the office provided much-needed reassurance in Italy’s darkest moments, from deep-state coup plots, to the “years of lead” and sordid bunga bunga sex scandals.

Graziano Delrio, a Democratic Party MP, summed up the sentiment when he reminded the newly installed government that, although they can be deceived, it is “respect for institutions” and the “equilibrium of powers that defend the people.” Far from subversive, the institutions’ ability to stay above the fray has empowered the people by acting as the very guarantor of lasting democracy. This is by design, just in case someone comes in and wants to burn the whole thing down.