Salvini's power grab backfires as Italy inches toward new government

Matteo Salvini, the anti-immigrant leader of the League party, had called for early elections in the hopes of enabling his party to govern alone.
Image: Giuseppe Conte
Giuseppe Conte delivers his speech after a meeting with President Sergio Mattarella at Rome's Quirinale presidential palace.Alessandro Di Meo / AP

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By Claudio Lavanga and Saphora Smith

ROME — Italy appears to have avoided a swing to the right Thursday as lawmakers scrambled to form a coalition thwarting a power grab by the country's hard-line interior minister, Matteo Salvini.

The anti-immigrant leader of the right-wing League party plunged Italian politics into chaos earlier this month when he called for early elections that he hoped would enable his party to govern alone.

But his gamble appears to have failed as Italian President Sergio Mattarella asked former prime minister Giuseppe Conte to head a new coalition — just over a week since he resigned after Salvini pulled the League’s support for his government.

Matteo Salvini addresses the media after a meeting on Wednesday.Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images

Conte said Thursday that he would try to cobble together a government backed by the League’s former ally, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the rival center-left Democratic Party.

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“This is a delicate phase for the country,” he told reporters at a press conference. “We need to exit this political uncertainty as quickly as possible.”

Conte, a mild-mannered lawyer who has no political affiliation but is thought to be close to the 5-Star Movement, said his priority would be to work on the looming 2020 budget.

The crucial legislation has to line up financial resources worth more than $25 billion to avert a massive sales tax hike that could plunge Italy into a new recession. It must be submitted to the European Commission by mid-October and approved by Parliament by the end of the year.

But while the alliance may forestall elections for now, the two parties face an uphill battle to successfully govern together. The 5-Star Movement and the Democratic Party are unlikely bedfellows and were until Thursday political rivals used to trading insults and barbs.

The parties are due to negotiate terms for forming a new government in the coming days with one obstacle likely to be the division of ministerial positions. Another is the decision by the 5-Star Movement to put the formation of a new coalition government to its members in an online vote.

Cut out of negotiations, Salvini has railed against the potential new government, lambasting it as the “government of losers” and as “an insult to democracy.”

Ahead of calling for fresh elections earlier this month, the League had been climbing in opinion polls, edging toward the 40 percent of public support it would need to govern alone.

“Those who fear the people’s vote can run for one, two or six months, but not forever," he told Rai television Wednesday night. "The only glue linking these two parties is the hatred toward the league, which is the most popular party in Italy."

On Thursday, Salvini called for a protest against the new government in Rome on Oct. 19.

Claudio Lavanga reported from Rome, Saphora Smith and Vivi Vitalone from London.

Vivi Vitalone, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.