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Salvini’s Rivals Are Threatening to Derail Italian Power Grab

Lorenzo Totaro
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Salvini’s Rivals Are Threatening to Derail Italian Power Grab

(Bloomberg) -- Deputy Premier Matteo Salvini’s push for power in Italy appears to be running into trouble, with the strongest indication yet that his rivals may be set to put aside their differences and forge an alliance to thwart him.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement said late Sunday it will fight Salvini’s bid to oust Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who heads their fractured coalition government.

Some heavyweights from the opposition center-left Democrats, or PD, -- including former Prime Ministers Romano Prodi and Matteo Renzi -- said their party should offer its support.

While the two parties have been at each others’ throats for years, Five Star faces a thrashing from Salvini’s anti-immigrant League if he can force a snap election.

Between them, Five Star and the PD have the votes to form a coalition and leave Salvini out in the cold -- if they can persuade President Sergio Mattarella to give them a mandate. They would need to convince the head of state that they can form a stable government capable of enacting key legislation like the 2020 budget.

Salvini is “no longer a credible interlocutor,” Five Star has said, and it’s vowed to back Conte as he heads into a possible confidence vote this week. The prime minister is due to appear before the Senate on Tuesday afternoon and a vote could come soon after. Alternatively, he could forego the confidence ballot and head directly to the Quirinale presidential palace to hand in his resignation.

Depending on whether they can persuade independents to join their alliance, Five Star and the PD could command about 180 seats in the 321-seat upper house, or Senate, compared with the ruling coalition’s 165. In the lower house, the two parties could cobble together a comfortable majority of around 360 seats.

Fabio Fois, an economist at Barclays in Milan, said a Five Star-PD coalition would be “the most market-friendly outcome,” as it would be likely to “adopt a cooperative stance” with the European Commission on Italy’s budget.

The commission, in return, would be more open to providing fiscal leeway to help avoid a government crisis that would benefit Salvini, Fois said in a note Monday. “It would signal to citizens and politicians that is worth cooperating with EU authorities,” he said.

One of Salvini and Di Maio’s most recent rows came after Five Star broke ranks with the League and joined the PD in backing Ursula von der Leyen as the new European Commission president.

In a speech in northern Italy Sunday night, Salvini appealed to Mattarella not to appoint a “government of losers,” his latest attempt to discredit his rivals. He has said the president should give Italians a chance to vote and that Five Star and the PD are conspiring to frustrate the will of the voters.

The 46-year-old hardliner has seen support for the League advance relentlessly since joining the government last year, and the party would be on course for a majority if Italy returns to the polls. Developments over the weekend suggest Salvini may have miscalculated how far his opponents would be prepared to go to block him.

A coalition with the establishment PD would be a humiliating climbdown for Five Star, since the two parties have traded insults and been at odds on almost every major issue for years.

But with polls showing Five Star has lost more than half its support since last year’s general election and with leader Luigi Di Maio facing party-imposed term limits that would prevent him from running again, the anti-establishment movement may decide it has little to lose.

For its part, the PD is hamstrung by internal divisions, with new leader Nicola Zingaretti so far unable to exert full control over the party’s lawmakers.

Most of them have ties with Renzi, who was the first to approach Five Star about forming a government. That prompted criticism from some senior PD officials, who accused the former premier of trying to weaken Zingaretti to pave the way for the creation of a new party.

(Updates with Conte speech in fourth paragraph)

--With assistance from Samuel Dodge and Zoe Schneeweiss.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lorenzo Totaro in Rome at ltotaro@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Jerrold Colten, Iain Rogers

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