The country's premier, Giuseppe Conte, demanded that Salvini “justify” his decision to provoke a political crisis.
Salvini, whose hard-right League party is doing well in the polls, has clashed with his fellow Deputy Prime Minister Luigi di Maio of the Five Star Movement (M5S) over a range of issues, and made increasing demands that coalition partners agree to League policies.
Salvini stepped up the pressure on Thursday, saying there was no longer a majority to support a government and calling for new elections.
“Let's go straight to parliament to say there is no longer a majority… and quickly go back to the voters,” Salvini said.
Conte (L) and Salvini. Photo: AFP
Conte, who had held separate talks with Salvini and the country's President Sergio Mattarella as the crisis deepened, said in a statement later that the interior minister doesn't summon parliament and “it's not up to him to dictate the steps of the political crisis.”
Salvini's actions will surprise few political observers in the country. Analysts predicted back in January that the League would try to engineer some kind of crisis and force early elections.
Whether or not Salvini will be successful this time remains to be seen.
Conte called on Salvini “to explain to the country and justify to the electorate, who believed in the possibility of change, the reasons that brought him to abruptly interrupt” the activities of government.
Both houses of parliament are currently on recess for the holidays and are not due back until September.
Long-rumbling tensions between the 14-month-old coalition's populist leaders have peaked in recent days, with the row centred on the financing of a multi-billion-euro high-speed train line.
5Stars Undersecretary Fioramonti says the government coalition with the League has always been a “marriage of convenience” and while 5S are “progressives” League is “ultra conservative.” https://t.co/QB3KYOqSbK
— Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli (@silvia_sb_) August 9, 2019
An early election may benefit Salvini, and leaves open the possibility that it could govern in alliance with a more natural ally, such as the smaller far-right party Fratelli d'Italia.
Federico Santi, senior Europe analyst with Eurasia Group, said a League-FdI government would “have a more explicitly pro-business outlook, but an even more virulently nationalist and eurosceptic orientation” than the present one.
“And a similarly problematic economic policy agenda.”
READ ALSO: Is italy's League a 'far-right' party?
The partnership between the League and M5S has been defined by ongoing spats, and has appeared to sour further in recent weeks.
Italian media has reported that 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.
“The League and M5S have been diverging in their vision for too long,on matters that are fundamental for the country,” the League said in its statement on Thursday.
“This government's only option is to let Italians have their say” by calling elections, it added.
President Mattarella, who has the sole power to dissolve parliament, 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.
The government is struggling to rein in its budget deficit and a mammoth debt mountain of more than 2.3 trillion euros.
Italian news agency AIG said on Thursday that the Senate could convene as early as August 20 to declare the end of the government, with the dissolution of parliament possible in the following days.
According to Italy's constitution, new elections would then have to be held within 70 days.