The success of the eurosceptic, anti-migrant League party at the European elections has raised questions in Italy over the current populist coalition government's future.
The League won more than 34 percent of the Italian vote, compared to just six percent in the 2014 EU elections and 17 percent in the Italian general election last year.
The results confirm the reversal of fortunes of the League and its coalition partner, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), which took 32.5 percent at the general election but took home just 17 percent on Sunday.
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“We can expect a week of frenetic negotiations to see how everyone will reposition themselves,” said Giovanni Orsina, politics professor at Rome's LUISS University.
The League victory and M5S collapse in popularity “is explosive in terms of the consequences for government stability,” political analyst Stefano Folli wrote in the Repubblica daily.
“We're not talking tomorrow, or the day after, but the fuse which will lead to the government's collapse has been lit,” he said.
The League snapped up votes from both the M5S and the opposition, with a hardline stance on migration and a savvy multimedia team bombarding Italians with selfies of leader Matteo Salvini.
The party did particularly well in centres seen as migration “hot spots”, including a town held up as a model of integration.
Salvini's victory had been widely expected, despite the M5S taking advantage of embarrassing corruption scandals involving the far-right party.
The interior minister sparked an outcry at a rally in the run-up to the vote by holding aloft a rosary seen by many as a gratuitous prop, and calling for the Virgin Mary to carry him to victory.
“Salvini was convinced he could do it. The (corruption) investigations made the League lose five to six points, but then he pulled out his rosary. And perhaps he really did get a miracle,” Marco Valbruzzi from the Istituto Cattaneo research institute said.
Inside a polling station in Milan before the 2019 EU elections. Photo: Miguel Medina/AFP
M5S head Luigi Di Maio suggested the League had got one over on it because of political attacks which initially went unchallenged.
Salvini – who celebrated by tweeting a photo of himself grinning and holding a sign saying “top party in Italy” – is now likely to try to force the M5S's hand on every plan it has contested since the coalition formed in June 2018.
“I ask for an acceleration on the government programme,” the 46-year-old said, brandishing Roman Catholic rosary beads.
The main questions at stake are a high-speed rail line between the cities of Turin and Lyon in France, and a flat tax proposal.
“Perhaps we were too silent, too pure at the beginning, and if that was our mistake I take responsibility,” he said Monday.
The results place Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in an increasingly difficult position. The leader agreed upon by Salvini and Di Maio is purportedly independent but was a M5S pick.
Analysts say Salvini may be tempted to break up the coalition and join forces with others on the right.
“I'd say the possibility of autumn elections is over 50 percent, unless there's a very strong alignment of the M5S with the Salvini leadership, which would create enormous tensions within the Movement,” Orsina said.
Italy's small far-right Brothers of Italy (FdI) party took home 6.4 percent of the vote, while billionaire Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party, a historic ally of the League, pocketed 8.8 percent.
“Salvini may pull the plug if he feels confident enough in getting an outright majority by siding with Brothers of Italy and part of Forza Italia (without Berlusconi),” said Lorenzo Codogno, former chief economist at the Italian Treasury Department.
The centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which won just 18 percent at the general election, took 22.7 percent of the vote, clawing back some votes from M5S.
The Green party, which recorded significant gains in many other European countries, took just 2.29 percent.