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Government crisis: is Italy heading for early elections?

Italy's government crisis is deepening after League party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini called for snap elections on Thursday, withdrawing his support for the coalition government.

Government crisis: is Italy heading for early elections?
(L-R) Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and League leader Matteo Salvini. Photo: AFP

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.

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.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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