ROME — Italy’s populist government edged toward collapse Thursday evening, with far-right leader Matteo Salvini calling for new elections and saying the country’s two quarrelsome coalition members were no longer functioning as a majority.
“Let’s quickly give the choice back to voters,” said Salvini, who notified Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of his desire.
The breakup of Western Europe’s first fully populist government is not final, and decisions about whether to dissolve parliament rests with Italy’s president, who pundits say could be reluctant to push the nation into campaign mode during the usually sleepy summer. In an evening address, Conte did not step down, and instead said Salvini was responsible for a government crisis — and for explaining his rationale to voters.
But Salvini’s move appeared to mark a turning point in the barely-functional relationship between divergent populist parties — one that leans left and has bled popularity during 14 months in power, the other that leans right and has all but co-opted the government behind the force of Salvini’s personality.
Salvini, the interior minister, has pushed the government to the brink not only because of differences with the Five Star Movement, but in a bid to gain more complete power and perhaps become prime minister. New elections could cement Italy’s shift to the right, with Salvini’s League forming a new government with a smaller far-right party.
But Italian president Sergio Mattarella has not indicated how he’d like to proceed. Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Luiss Guido Carli University, said Mattarella could resist dissolving parliament during a time when it is supposed to be in recess, and when the government is gearing up to deal with a crucial budget law. Mattarella could also see if other parties might be able to patch together a temporary majority as a way to avoid the need for new elections.
“Salvini is gambling — there is no question he is gambling now,” D’Alimonte said. “If he feels he can’t get early elections, he will backtrack” and stick with the coalition.
A League-led government would be less fractious than the one that has governed Italy during the past 14 months — a period during which the coalition members have battled over infrastructure projects, traded insults, and pushed the other side to deal with corruption allegations. Italian papers have documented the tensions like a reality show, reporting that in some periods Salvini and Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio are not on speaking terms.
In June, Conte, an obscure lawyer who was a compromise pick of the parties, threatened to resign if the two sides didn’t stop squabbling. They continued. This week, former prime minister Matteo Renzi, a member of the opposition center-left party, said Di Maio and Salvini were arguing “like spoiled children.”
Thursday evening, Conte said that it was not up to the interior minister — Salvini — to summon the parliament or provoke a crisis.
“It will be up to the minister of the interior in his role as leader of the League to explain to the country and to justify to the voters who had believed in the prospect for change the reasons that lead him to interrupt things before it’s time,” Conte said.
In European parliamentary elections in May, the League — which on several years earlier had been on the nativist fringes — sealed its place as Italy’s most popular party, winning 34 percent of the votes, double from national elections a year earlier. Since then, the League has continued to tick up in popularity, even after a leaked audio recording appeared to show a Salvini ally discussing a secretive funding scheme with Russians in a Moscow hotel.
Salvini has dismissed any accusations of wrongdoing and carried on in campaign-like mode, drawing up a summer itinerary of events at beach towns across Italy’s south. At one of those events, on Wednesday night, Salvini spoke almost wistfully about the first months of the coalition, but said, “I don’t deny that in the last three months, something changed, something broke.”
Di Maio said late Thursday night that Salvini had brought down the government because he “put polls before the country’s interests.”
In the event of new elections, the Five Star Movement is almost certain to lose ground. Prior to gaining power, the anti-establishment party had grown into an insurgent force, campaigning on anti-corruption and environmental protection pledges, and promising to put big intra-party decisions to an Internet vote. But the party in government was overshadowed by Salvini’s forceful style: a mix of hostility to migrants and opponents, and tweeting about his daily life, reminiscent of President Trump.
This week, the tensions between the League and Five Star Movement were exacerbated by the debate over an infrastructure project — a rail line between Turin in Italy and Lyon in France.
The League, with its base in the industrial north, has supported the deal. But Five Star members say the project is a money-loser that will also cause environment risks. After the two parties split in a vote Wednesday on the project, Salvini said that he was not interested in staying in the government to keep “chairs warm.”
“What will happen in the next few hours?” he asked.