Thursday

20th Feb 2020

Conte turns on Salvini, as Italy prepares for change

Italy's political crisis has reached a point of no return.

On Tuesday (20 August), prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced his resignation in parliament, putting an end to the government formed by the Five Star Movement (MS5) and League parties some 15 months ago.

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In his speech, Conte launched an eloquent and scathing attack against Matteo Salvini, the League's leader, accusing the interior minister of disloyalty and of an "objectively serious" neglect of his institutional responsibilities.

Salvini had provoked the crisis two weeks ago by calling a no confidence vote against Conte, using disagreement over a railway tunnel as a pretext.

He did it to force a general election after the League won with 34 percent in the European Parliament one in May and polled even higher in recent months.

He also called for "full powers" to govern the country himself.

But that might have been a miscalculation.

A majority in parliament does not want this legislature to end just yet.

Salvini appeared shaken by Conte's speech, trying to maintain his usual bravado, while asking M5S for help to get him out of the corner he now found himself in.

Meanwhile, earlier in the day, desperate migrants stuck on a rescue ship off the Italian coast due to a Salvini decree began jumping in the water to try to swim to shore, in another sign of the feverish atmosphere in the country.

End of an affair

For his part, Romano Prodi, a former Italian prime minister and president of the European Commission, has promoted the idea of creating a new pro-European government without Salvini for the time being.

It remains unclear how such a government might come together.

It would require agreement between the two largest forces in parliament - M5S and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

They have been at loggerheads for years, but MPs' instinct for self-preservation could prevail and, in any case, the M5S now seems to have definitively broken up with the League.

In his speech, Conte said political turmoil in Italy could endanger difficult negotiations with the EU over next year's budget and limit Italy's influence on the shape of the new EU commission.

The outgoing prime minister appeared to signal that he was open to leading a new government which would uphold "Italy's prestige in Europe".

And this is bad news for Salvini.

Conte, a previously unknown law professor, has become one of the most popular politicians in Italy since 5MS and the League hoisted him to office in their unusual coalition.

He could now facilitate the creation of a new government, albeit a short-lived one.

He could also become a valuable candidate for the M5S in the elections or even set up his own party.

Conte has cast himself as Salvini's foremost opponent, despite having endorsing his agenda over the last year.

He also criticised the interior minister for inciting his supporters to take to the streets, for brandishing a crucifix at political meetings, and for refusing to clarify his financial ties to Russia.

Full circle

The PD's leadership will convene on Wednesday to decide how to approach formal consultations with president Sergio Mattarella.

But a major obstacle to an agreement with the M5S could be Matteo Renzi, a former PD prime minister.

Salvini responded to Conte's attacks by accusing him of being part of a plot to bring back the unpopular Renzi, who is rumoured to be nurturing ideas of a return to power.

The PD's newly elected leader, Nicola Zingaretti, is not a member of parliament and could not prevent Renzi from seizing the moment to regain visibility.

Much depends on whether Zingaretti can now convince Renzi and his followers to toe the line.

An agreement with the PD would take the M5S full circle, from its roots as popular protest party to the heart of the political establishment.

The movement was founded in 2009 by comedian Beppe Grillo, after he was barred from running in PD primaries.

In 2013, the M5S entered parliament with 25 percent of the vote, slightly fewer than the PD, but the two parties failed to find common ground.

They also failed to find common ground in 2018, when M5S became the biggest party.

The first failed attempt paved the way for Renzi to lead a government by relying on former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi's votes, the second failed attempt led Salvini to join the ruling coalition.

Now the two parties have a shared interest in avoiding imminent elections for which neither of them seems prepared.

It remains to be seen whether that is enough to form a new governing majority, especially as any new government would have to make some highly unpopular spending cuts.

But letting an aspiring strongman have his way is hardly less risky.

Author bio

Mads Frese is a freelance journalist living in Brussels.

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