Italy recalls Senate from recess as no-confidence vote looms

Italy's political leaders decided to recall the entire Senate from summer recess on Tuesday to vote on a timetable that could include a no-confidence vote and spell the end of the ruling populist coalition.

Italy recalls Senate from recess as no-confidence vote looms
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and League leader Matteo Salvini. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

The future of the government was cast into doubt last week after the League party withdrew support for the current ruling coalition – which it is part of.

READ ALSO: Government crisis: is Italy heading for early elections?

Hard-right populist League leader Matteo Salvini, who is also co-deputy prime minister and interior minister in the fractious government, demanded snap elections after pulling support for the coalition with the Five Star Movement (M5S).

While the government is still in place, the Senate must decide whether to initiate a no-confidence vote in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's 14-month-old administration.

The heads of political groupings met in the upper house on Monday, but failed to reach an agreement on when a no-confidence vote should happen.

Senators have now been recalled from their holidays to debate a calendar for the complex constitutional process of a no-confidence vote.

The Senate is to meet from 1600 GMT today with the aim of agreeing on a timeline.

Salvini, eager to capitalise on his current popularity, wants the vote held immediately.

The anti-immigrant League leader has been taking his message to the beaches at the height of the summer holiday season, seeking to build on his “man of the people” image as he prepared to trigger the crisis.

His popularity is seemingly undented by recent allegations that his party sought funding from Russia, or the fact that The League has been ordered to pay back 49 million euros in fraudulently claimed electoral expenses.

He's supported by right-wing allies, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the smaller far-right party Brothers of Italy, in demanding a snap vote as soon as possible.

Matteo Salvini (L) and Silvio Berlusconi go back a long way. Photo: AFP

The Senate could in theory declare the end of the government as early as August 20, with the dissolution of parliament possible in the following days, Italian news agency AIG said.

New elections would then have to be held within 70 days according to Italy's constitution, meaning Salvini could get his election by October.

Salvini says he wants an election in order to form a stable, five-year government without the constant bickering with M5S, which is politically distant from the League's hardline anti-immigration stance.

READ ALSO: Matteo Salvini, Italy's rebranded nationalist sharing power with former enemy

He says he wants to implement radical tax cuts and initiate public works projects to kickstart the Italian economy.

But the M5S is among those opposed to swift elections, with Di Maio calling for parliament first to implement a planned parliamentary reform which would slash the number of lawmakers from 950 to 605, a move that's popular among the electorate but not with the League, as it would potentially diluting the party's power.

M5S and the opposition Democratic Party (PD) are discussing a potential collaboration, as together they would have enough votes to potentially thwart Salvini's bid to bring down the government and seize power.

The M5S's founder, comedian Beppe Grillo, called for a “republican front” to prevent “the barbarians” forming a government.

Matteo Renzi, who governed for PD from 2014-16, called for the formation of a technocrat government to avoid “giving the extreme right our children's future”.

The M5S, PD and other parties should support an “institutional government” to pass the parliamentary reform and next year's budget to avoid an automatic rise in VAT which would hit the least well-off the hardest, Renzi said.

The party is also divided over whether to try to form a coalition with M5S, something they refused to do after last May's elections, prompting the unwieldy M5S-League alliance.

READ ALSO: Italy's former Northern League hunts votes in the south

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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.