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Months After Election, Italy's Populist Parties Seek More Time To Negotiate Coalition

May 14, 2018

It has been 10 weeks since Italian voters handed the country's populist parties big gains at the ballot box — but if the general election's big winners, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the far-right, anti-immigrant League party, are to form a governing coalition, it appears they will need at least a few days more.

"We agree we have to move quickly," 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio told reporters after speaking with President Sergio Mattarella, according to Reuters, "but as we are writing what will be the government programme for the next five years, it's very important for us to do it as well as possible, so we told the president we needed a few more days."

During the campaign, both parties often mobilized skepticism of the European Union, frustration with a stagnant domestic economy and virulent anger over migrant arrivals in recent years. Yet, while their appeals against the current political order resonated among voters, their attempts to forge a new order between themselves have proven much more complicated. The move toward compromise has proved to be halting and hesitant.

The main things they appear to have agreed upon are dramatic tax cuts and big boosts to entitlement programs — a combination that has set some alarm bells ringing among Italy's European partners, but that has also brought the two parties closer to a long-awaited coalition agreement. So close, in fact, that some onlookers assumed that when leaders of both parties met separately with Mattarella at the presidential palace Monday, they might finally emerge with a deal.

Instead, they emerged with some more leeway granted by the president.

At issue now is a key question: Who, exactly, should serve as prime minister of a coalition between the 5-Star Movement and the League?

Neither Di Maio, 31, nor Matteo Salvini, the 31-year-old League leader, has publicly sought the role. In their place, several prominent academics have reportedly emerged as potential candidates to suit both parties, though none has solidified a position as a favorite. As the Financial Times notes, Italian media has reported that something of a two-man race has developed — between Giulio Sapelli, an economic historian with ties to Italy's biggest oil and gas group, and law professor Giuseppe Conte.

Any final decision reached by both parties will need the approval of Mattarella, who is responsible for appointing the prime minister and the major cabinet positions. FT adds that 5-Star "has also pledged to put its 'contract' with the League to an online vote among its members, introducing some uncertainty about the latest accord."

Compounding this uncertainty is the unlikely revival of Silvio Berlusconi's political prospects. The 81-year-old former prime minister, who won four terms in that office, had been barred from public office as part of his 2013 sentence for tax fraud, but an Italian court upended that sentence earlier this month.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports, the court ruled that Berlusconi's public office ban "can be lifted one year early thanks to good conduct."

Shortly before that ruling, Berlusconi had given the League — a political ally of his Forza Italia party — a pass to negotiate a government with 5-Star. However, should those talks fail, with new elections called as a result, the BBC explains the longtime leader could angle for the position of premier again.

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