Salvini ambush sparks Italy political crisis

AFP , Friday 9 Aug 2019

Matteo Salvini
Italian Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, speaks during a press conference at Lido Cala Sveva in Termoli, part of his 'Italian summer tour', Friday, Aug. 9 2019 AP

Italy plunged into uncharted political waters Friday after Interior Minister Matteo Salvini pulled support for the government coalition and called for snap elections while parliament was on summer recess.

The heightened political tensions in the heavily-indebted country -- the eurozone's third largest economy -- rattled financial markets, where yields rose on Italian government bonds.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who has held several rounds of talks to try to ease the crisis in the 14-month-old government, angrily called on Salvini to justify his move.

Salvini has clashed frequently in recent weeks with his fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) over a range of policies.

He upped the pressure Thursday, saying there was no longer a majority to support a government and calling for new elections "quickly" -- which could see Italy head to the polls from as early as October.

"Autumn coincides with key moments, like the budget law. Elections in that period are unprecedented," Massimo Franco, editorialist for Italy's biggest selling Corriere della Sera daily, told AFP.

Long-rumbling tensions between the coalition's populist leaders have peaked in recent days, with a row over the financing of a multi-billion-euro high-speed train line between the Italian city of Turin and Lyon in neighbouring France.

The populist government is struggling to rein in its budget deficit and a mammoth debt mountain of more than 2.3 trillion euros.

On financial markets, the closely-watched spread between Italian 10-year government bonds and the benchmark German bond -- which is a measure of the added risk perceived by investors to holding onto Italian debt -- jumped to 241 basis points.


Voice for the people!


The sudden political crisis caught many in Italy off guard, with both houses of parliament currently on recess for the holidays and not due back until September.

Salvini's League said Friday it had tabled a motion of no-confidence against Conte in the Senate.

Under Senate rules, any such motion has to be addressed within 10 days, so no later than August 20.

If the motion passes there, Conte would have to present his resignation to Italy's President Sergio Mattarella, who could start the countdown for elections to be held within 70 days.

Salvini said his members of parliament would be back at their desks on Monday.

"Those who delay are just trying to save their seats in power," he said on Twitter Friday.

"Give the people a voice immediately!" he added.

An early election would likely benefit Salvini, with opinion polls putting his League party ahead, leaving open the possibility that it could govern in alliance with another, smaller far-right party, Fratelli d'Italia (Brothers of Italy).

It reflects a change in fortune for Italy's coalition partners since last year, when M5S took 32 percent of the vote at the general election, and the League 17 percent.

In the European elections in May this year, the League took the most votes in Italy with 34 percent against 17 percent for M5S.

Di Maio said his M5S party "is ready" to return to the polls.


Far-right rise?


Mattarella has the sole power to dissolve parliament.

He insists there must be a government in place to finalise the budget, a first draft of which has to be submitted to EU authorities by the end of September.

To that end, he could name a government of technocrats and push elections back to February or March, although this would be unpopular with Italians.

Salvini, in earlier talks with Conte, set conditions for staying in the coalition -- including the resignation of the transport, defence and economy ministers, who have resisted his projects and policies, Italian media reported.

"This government has been over for a while," political analyst Stefano Folli told AFP.

"In a few months' time we'll have a right-wing government, for the left is weak and the M5S is in crisis."

The left vowed not to roll over, with former prime minister Paolo Gentiloni tweeting that Salvini was "asking for full powers to take us out of Europe. It will not happen".

Federico Santi, senior Europe analyst with Eurasia Group, said a League-Brothers government would "have a more explicitly pro-business outlook, but an even more virulently nationalist and eurosceptic orientation" than the present one.

Capital Economics said it suspected a new right-wing coalition "would be even more likely to clash with the EU", though it noted the "silver lining is that the government might be less likely to question Italy's membership of the euro-zone".

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