Italy’s prime minister resigns
Published : Tuesday, 20 August, 2019 at 10:27 PM Count : 194
The most nationalist, populist and dysfunctional Italian government in decades collapsed on Tuesday as the country’s prime minister announced his resignation in the face of a mutinous power play by the hard-line and increasingly popular interior minister, Matteo Salvini, reports The New York Times.
“The interior minister followed personal and party interests,” by calling for elections and pulling his support from the government, said Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as he addressed an extraordinary session of Parliament that interrupted the usually sacrosanct Italian summer recess.
With Salvini seated beside him with raised chin, Conte took aim, accusing him of “political opportunism,” disregard for Italy’s institutions and thrusting the country into a “vortex of political uncertainty and financial instability.”
Circumventing a confidence vote that Salvini had promoted, Conte said he would go to the Quirinal Hill and tender his resignation to Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
Salvini responded, saying that he would do everything the same again and did not fear the judgment of the Italians, unlike others in the Parliament who were simply frightened that elections would lead them to lose their jobs. “We aren’t scared,” he said.
Mattarella will now begin the process of consulting with party leaders to see if a new majority can form yet another Italian government. If not, he is likely to call for early elections, potentially as soon as October.
The demise of the coalition between the hard-right, anti-migrant League party, led by Salvini, and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thrust Italy into a renewed period of crisis and political chaos only 445 days after the unlikely partners took power.
During the government’s short tenure, the nationalist-populist coalition struck fear into the heart of the European establishment, with its antagonism toward the European Union, its flouting of the bloc’s budgetary laws, its demonization of migrants, and its embrace of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and his strongman politics.
While expressing regret that the government could not continue to compile achievements, which its critics consider all but nonexistent, Conte vented his anger at Salvini.
With the leader of the 5-Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, hardly able to suppress his glee as he sat on Conte’s left, the prime minister accused Salvini of exploiting Catholic symbols on the campaign trail and of failing to answer accusations that his League party had secretly sought funding from Russia.
He questioned Salvini’s failure to leave the government despite expressing his lack of confidence in it.
“Dear Matteo, pushing this crisis you have assumed a great responsibility,” Conte said, adding that he “was worried” by Salvini’s request for full powers and for his supporters to fill the country’s squares in protest.
Salvini and his 5-Star counterpart, Di Maio, turned the country into a social media reality show, incessantly speechifying and bickering via Facebook Live or Twitter over their opposite positions on infrastructure projects, taxes, regional autonomy and even beach holidays.
In the meantime, the country became isolated in Europe and its financial situation darkened.
Growth hovered around 0% and the government proved paralyzed or ineffectual in the face of dizzying youth unemployment and public debt of more than 2 trillion euros — about $2.2 trillion, more than 130% of Italy’s annual economic output. The yield spread between Italian and German 10-year bench mark bonds, considered a metric of risk for investment in Italy, has stayed high through much of their tenure.
But any relief expressed by critics of the government could be short lived.
If Salvini does get the election he so craves, and if he performs as well as polls suggest, he could consolidate his grip on power and cement his reputation as the most powerful — and for critics, destructive — nationalist leader in Europe.
It is with that goal of elections in mind that Salvini, and not the opposition, called for a no-confidence vote in the government.
Over the last year, Salvini’s popularity has doubled to nearly 40%, considered a ceiling in Italy’s fragmented politics, as he has consistently outflanked and embarrassed the inexperienced, and often incompetent, 5-Star Movement.
5-Star’s support halved, making elections perilous for its members’ continued employment in Parliament. This month Salvini used the government’s paralysis on infrastructure projects as a rationale to announce the death of the government — “the majority is no more,” he said — as he called for new elections. “Let’s hear from the voters, quickly,” he said.
But for the usually politically adroit Salvini, it turned out to be a rare, and potentially costly, misstep. For all his public support, Parliament amounted to a parallel universe where endangered and defunct forces still held sway.
The 5-Star Movement, feeling betrayed by Salvini and dreading elections that would likely send many of its members of Parliament packing, has made itself open to an alliance with the Democratic Party. But whether they can overcome their mutual animosity and differences to form a majority is anyone’s guess.
For years, Di Maio and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, still a power broker inside the Democratic Party, have been sworn enemies. Now, however, they may find common cause in avoiding new elections, staying in Parliament and depriving Salvini of his power and campaign-friendly perch as interior minister.
Salvini — who had triggered the crisis by calling for a confidence vote against Conte — seemed to realize that early elections may not be in the offing, and spent the last days backtracking and expressing his willingness to support Conte in the hopes that the government he tried to collapse would instead stand, and with him in it.
In a dramatic reversal, Italy’s most popular, and now chastened, politician was reduced to trying to make up with the 5-Star Movement to avoid the crisis. Instead of becoming prime minister himself, speculation in Rome focused on him supporting, as a peace offering, Di Maio as prime minister.
On Tuesday, Conte did not even give him the chance and resigned before the no confidence vote.
The 5-Star Movement, with which the nominally independent Conte is much more closely associated, instead wanted to end the relationship with the League.
The Democratic Party’s Renzi, who had spent the last years vowing never to join forces with 5-Star, accusing it of spreading hate, misinformation and a dangerous anti-expertise ethos, changed his tune dramatically. For him, an alliance with 5-Star may now provide an oxygen tank for a remarkable political resuscitation.
Renzi wasn’t the only Italian political figure reanimated by the crisis. It also jolted energy into the moribund Forza Italia party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Eager to avoid elections that would erase their representation in Parliament, the party is considering lending support to a 5-Star and Democratic Party government with a more Forza Italia-friendly prime minister.
To the chagrin of Salvini, Mattarella, the head of state who is imbued with enormous powers during a government crisis, also had his motives for avoiding early elections, which the Italian Constitution says should be a last resort.
If Italy doesn’t approve budget cuts to balance out its expensive programs and extraordinary debt by Dec 31, a financial safeguard mechanism will automatically raise value added tax on all purchases, devastating the spending power of Italian families.
If no new political majority forms, Mattarella can appeal to Parliament’s institutional powers, including the speakers of both houses, to try and form a government that can survive a confidence vote.
If such a government emerges, it would be empowered to pass a budget to avoid the tax hike. Another option is that Mattarella empowers a technical government of nonpartisan experts, which, once validated by a confidence vote, would also have the ability to pass a budget and govern.
If those options proved impossible, Mattarella could install a time-limited government to shepherd Italy through early elections, most likely in October or November, which would not have the time or latitude to prevent the tax hike.
In the meantime, Italy, already struggling financially with decreased influence abroad, finds itself in a mess of its own making.