Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has resigned following a decision by the far-right League party to present a no-confidence motion in the 14-month old coalition government.
The move on Tuesday leaves Italy in a political vacuum until President Sergio Mattarella decides whether to form a new coalition or call an election after talks with parties in the coming days.
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Mattarella charged Conte with heading a caretaker administration after he handed in his resignation, pending consultations on a new government which are set to begin at 14:00 GMT on Wednesday.
The crisis began on August 8 when Matteo Salvini, the head of the League party, declared his alliance with the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement was dead and called for elections, a move he hopes will make him prime minister.
Addressing parliament on the turmoil unleashed by the League’s move, Conte accused Salvini, who is also deputy prime minister and interior minister, of trying to drag down the coalition for personal and political gain, and putting the nation at risk of financial instability.
“I’m ending this government experience here,” Conte, who does not belong to either of the coalition parties, said in his almost hour-long speech to the chamber.
“It is irresponsible to initiate a government crisis … [Salvini] has shown that he is following his own interests and those of his party,” he told a packed senate, one of the two chambers of parliament, with a stony-faced Salvini sitting by his side.
Describing Salvini’s actions as reckless, Conte said the move was “liable to tip the country into a spiral of political uncertainty and financial instability”.
‘Do it all again’
During Conte’s address, Salvini at times shook his head, rolled his eyes or nodded to League senators as the prime minister unleashed a blistering critique of his actions over the past two weeks.
After Conte announced his intention to resign, senate speaker Elisabetta Casellati told Salvini to leave the government bench and join his party’s senators, where Salvini said: “Thank you, finally, I would do it all again.”
Salvini rejected Conte’s comments, saying other parties were afraid of going to elections and losing their influence.
He said his political goal was to challenge the EU’s fiscal rules, which he has blamed for impoverishing the country. Rome should spend at least 50 billion euros ($55bn) to stimulate the chronically weak economy, he added.
“I am not afraid,” he said. “I don’t want Italy to be a slave to anyone, and I don’t want Italy to be given a long chain like a little dog. I don’t want any chain at all.”
Pressing for elections as soon as possible, Salvini said: “I don’t fear Italians’ judgment.”
At the end of the parliamentary debate the League withdrew the no-confidence vote in the government that it had tabled earlier this month, but Conte said the move had come too late.
Salvini’s popularity has been buoyed by his anti-migrant rhetoric and policy, with the League forcing through a new law which criminalises Mediterranean rescue workers and states any ship carrying undocumented migrants and refugees in Italian waters may be seized and impounded, and its crew fined up to $1.1m.
But his gamble for early elections, three and a half years ahead of schedule, could yet prove to be a blunder.
Politicians from Five Star and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) are openly discussing forming a new coalition which would give Italy a more centrist, pro-European government.
Such a scenario would see Salvini’s far-right party removed from power altogether.
Mattarella is likely to push for a swift decision by the Five Star and PD parties.
Italy’s president may also seek to build a coalition between Five Star and Forza Italia – the shrinking centre-right party led by 82-year-old Silvio Berlusconi – as the parties had worked together to support the nomination of Germany’s Ursula von der Leyen to the presidency of the European Commission.