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.
“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