Italy’s Populists Near Crunch Time, With Salvini Playing God
(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s fractious populist coalition lurches into a make-or-break week as Matteo Salvini decides whether to try to force snap elections while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte struggles to salvage the government.
The fate of the coalition hangs on a possible meeting between Deputy Premier Salvini and his ally-cum-rival Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement, and government talks on granting more powers to northern regions -- a landmark issue for Salvini’s rightist League. Conte is also due to address parliament on the “Russiagate” scandal Wednesday.
“The future is in the hands of the good Lord,” Salvini told reporters on a visit to Florence, when asked whether the government would last. Salvini said he had no meeting planned with Di Maio, newswire Ansa reported.
Salvini, the dominant force in the administration, has repeatedly threatened to scupper the ruling coalition. Tensions with the anti-establishment Five Star have escalated since the League became Italy’s biggest party in May’s European parliamentary elections.
Supporting the move are soaring poll numbers that see the League within shooting distance of the 40% needed for a majority in Parliament. Yet, while ditching Five Star could trigger a snap vote as early as September, the decision is ultimately up to President Sergio Mattarella.
As he mulls over a death-blow to the coalition, Salvini is pressing for commitments from Five Star to his priority reforms. Salvini also wants a cabinet reshuffle to replace Five Star ministers including Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli and Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta, according to two senior League lawmakers who declined to be named on a confidential issue.
If the government is to survive, Salvini would need to hold a meeting not just with Di Maio but also with Conte, the League lawmakers said. After triggering alarm bells over the coalition’s future last week, Salvini has still not decided whether to keep it going or not, the lawmakers added.
After months of clashes with Di Maio, Salvini is increasingly targeting Conte, a Florence law professor with no previous political experience, who was picked for the premiership by Five Star last year. Salvini is considering replacing him with a new prime minister, as an alternative to snap elections, newspaper La Repubblica reported.
The trigger for the latest coalition infighting is the gap between Italy’s wealthy north and the depressed south, which many governments have tried and failed to resolve. The League wants more powers over sectors from health to education for the north where it’s based, while Five Star is stalling in those regions as its stronghold is in the south.
According to newspaper Corriere della Sera, Salvini would favor early elections in April 2020. A failure by allies to grant him a so-called “flat tax” would be the ideal pretext for bringing down the government.
But making the government collapse over the autonomy issue could backfire on him as it might contrast in the public’s view with his plan to transform the League from a northern secessionist force into a national force.
Still, Salvini’s lieutenants in the League clamor for him to try to force early elections in a bid to capitalize on the party’s ascent and possibly govern without allies. They fear a rapprochement between the opposition Democratic Party and the Five Star if they wait too long.
Conte, on the other hand, is walking on a tightrope to try and salvage the government. On Tuesday, he will host meetings to iron out differences on the regional autonomy law in time for a cabinet meeting expected Thursday. He’s also due to address Parliament on Wednesday about reports that a close associate of Salvini’s allegedly solicited illegal party funding from three Russians.
Salvini, who has denied his party received any Russian financing and insists he has “never taken a ruble, a euro, a dollar or a liter of vodka in financing from Russia,” might also speak in the Senate after Conte.
(Adds Salvini remarks in third paragraph.)
--With assistance from Lorenzo Totaro.
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