Why a row over immunity for Italy's politicians threatens to split 5-Star Movement
A row over whether Italy’s politicians should be immune from prosecution threatens to engulf Italian politics.
The man at the centre of the debate is Italy’s Deputy Premier and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.
He could be in the dock over allegations of kidnapping and abuse of power. Except, the power of opinion in Italy could prevent any action being taken against the hard-right leader.
Who is supporting Salvini, and do politicians really hold such sway against Italy’s judicial process?
Italy’s politicians are traditionally immune from prosecution when holding office unless they voluntarily put themselves forward for investigation.
Last August, Sicilian prosecutors requested permission from parliament to proceed against Salvini for the alleged kidnapping of 177 migrants held on board the Diciotti coast guard ship in a standoff with the European Union.
The Diciotti was left in limbo for ten days in August after Salvini refused permission for it to dock in Italy. The ship was eventually given the green light to go to Sicily, but only after the Catholic Church delivered a deal with Ireland and Albania to take the onboard migrants.
Shortly after, Sicilian prosecutors announced that they would open an investigation into the minister for “illegal arrest and abuse of power”, only to drop the case.
Salvini believes he is entitled to immunity from legal action as he was just doing his job as a minister, just like any other minister in Italy.
Support for Salvini is strong, but politically risky
The League party leader Matteo Salvini has the support of coalition ally the 5-Star Movement, who voted to block a possible trial against the deputy minister.
The populist party used an online poll answered by its members to dictate its decision on the probe. Both the 5-Star Movement and the League often clash over policy but in this case, it seems that they are more coalition bedfellows than rivals.
Just over 59% of 5-Star’s 52,000 members voted to protect Salvini from any charges. But while the will to provide immunity for Salvini could help ease tensions between 5-Star and the League, the row has exposed a rift in 5-Star itself.
Critics within the 5-Star camp say protection for Salvini goes against the populist’s vow for transparency in Italian politics. Denouncing corruption and special treatment for politicians is what got 5-Star into power into the first place.
Indeed, some 5-Star politicians call themselves "citizens" rather than politicians to set themselves apart from the idea of special treatment.
Now, supporters say, the party is turning its back on its core values.
What happens next?
Catania, Sicily’s capital, needed permission from Italy’s Senate to continue investigating Salvini.
On Tuesday, Italy’s Senate immunity panel rejected a criminal prosecutor's appeal to proceed with charges against Salvini.
Some 5-Star lawmakers who supported an investigation into Salvini could be the first casualties on the back of the decision.
Local mayors in Turin and Rome have voiced concerns, and many 5-Star members have already been expelled after voicing concerns that 5-Star holds little value on democracy inside its movement.
The next step is a Senate vote on the issue, with a vote expected to take place by March 24.
With their hands tied by the online poll, Senate members are likely to follow suit.
The political fallout, however, is far from over.