Italy's Salvini calls for elections, raises possibility of far-right rule
"It would make it one of the most right-wing governments in Europe," one expert said.
Italy's Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini leaves after the result of the vote on the future of a contested Alpine rail link meant to connect Turin with Lyon, at the Senate, in Rome, Italy, Aug. 7, 2019.Remo Casilli / Reuters
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He was criticized earlier this year after skipping celebrations marking Italy's 1945 liberation from the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, who spent the last two years of World War II overseeing a puppet republic in Nazi-occupied northern Italy.
Salvini's and Di Maio's parties have been something of an odd couple since they joined forces after an election in May 2018. They have been bickering for months over several domestic policy issues, including disagreements over taxes and a high-speed rail link to France.
Salvini has styled himself as a man-of-the-people who for most of the summer has decamped to the beach. He began the coalition last year with a little more than half the public support of the M5S. But these roles have since flipped, with the League topping Italy's polls in May's European Parliament elections, and today scoring as high as 38 percent in opinion polls.
On Thursday the party said the disagreements with its bedfellow had become too much.
"We have to acknowledge that, after having accomplished many good things, for too long now the League and the 5-Star movement have disagreed on fundamental issues," the League said in a statement.
"Italy needs certainties and courageous choices," it added. "Every day that passes is a day lost. To us, the only alternative to this government is to call for new elections and let Italians decide."
Although Salvini's intervention appears to make the current government unworkable, an early election is not certain. Italy's parliament is currently on its summer recess and has not held a vote in the fall since the end of World War II, according to Reuters.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, a law professor who belongs to neither party, said on television that Salvini must explain to Italians why he wanted to bring down the government and condemned "the crisis he has unleashed," Reuters reported.
The prime minister could call a "motion of confidence" in the government, and will resign if he loses. But the president, Sergio Mattarella, is the only person with the power to dissolve parliament.
Instead he may opt to install a government of technocrats — apolitical experts, rather than tribal politicians — so the 2020 budget can be passed and any election can be postponed until next year.
Italy is the world's eighth largest economy but has Europe's second largest sovereign debt burden after Greece. It has already angered the European Union by threatening to break its budget rules, and Salvini is already setting up another clash next year by seeking major tax cuts.
Catherine Fieschi, an expert on populism and director of the British think tank Counterpoint, believes that if Salvini gains power he might switch focus from immigration to the economy in a bid to be taken more seriously than the other populist firebrands with whom he is currently associated.
"His ambition has been driven by a real sense that Italy has been humiliated in Europe," she said. "Putting Italy back at the heart of Europe is important to him, and he knows he can't do that by being a troublemaker all his life."
Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome, and Alexander Smith reported from London.
Claudio Lavanga is Rome-based producer and correspondent for NBC News.
Alexander Smith is a senior reporter for NBC News Digital based in London.