The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigns, leaving an unclear path forward

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, center, is hugged by Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio, as the League’s Matteo Salvini sits at left, in Rome on Aug. 20, 2019. (Ettore Ferrari/AP)

ROME — Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte submitted his resignation Tuesday in a move that preempted a looming vote of no confidence called by his interior minister, the far-right Matteo Salvini.

If his resignation is accepted by Italy’s president, it will mark the end of Western Europe’s first fully populist government after just 14 months in power and throw the country into a renewed period of political instability at a critical moment in the continent.

The president’s office said late Tuesday that Conte has been asked to stay in his post temporarily as consultations over a possible new government were expected to begin Wednesday.

Conte’s departure could usher in a more moderate coalition government. But it also has the potential to empower Salvini to make his expected bid to lead the nation further to the right ahead of critical budget talks with the European Union and amid an ongoing standoff with Europe over Salvini’s hard-line stance on migration.

President Sergio Mattarella — who has expansive powers during times of crisis — will “launch political consultations with party leaders, which may not take long,” said Francesco Clementi, a constitutional expert at the University of Perugia. Mattarella will then gauge whether a new majority can be cobbled together or “if political forces wish to go to a snap vote,” Clementi said.

“Letting citizens vote is the essence of democracy, but making them vote every year is irresponsible,” Conte told the Italian Senate on Tuesday.

To further complicate matters, Salvini’s party said it would withdraw its no-confidence motion late Tuesday in the hopes it would delay Conte’s departure and postpone the breakup of the coalition government so it could “bring reforms to completion.”

It was not clear if the gambit would work.

Here are five key questions and answers on Italy’s uncertain path forward. 

Why did the government fall apart?

 While both the Five Star Movement and Salvini’s far-right League present themselves as anti-establishment, they have had strong disagreements on most areas of policy. However, an increasing number of Italians have appeared to favor Salvini’s nationalist and nativist views.

As a result, his party soared in the polls, overshadowing the once more popular Five Star Movement.

Salvini appeared to want to take advantage of those gains when he proposed a motion of no confidence on his own prime minister and called for snap elections.

What is more likely, elections or a new coalition?

A snap vote could favor the front-running Salvini, whose party polls at around 38 percent. But snap elections are not the default option, and other parties have a strong interest in preventing them.

A caretaker government could take over, instead. One likely scenario could see a coalition government consisting of members of the Five Star Movement and center-left Democratic Party (PD). The parties are rivals that until recently repeatedly ruled out ever becoming coalition partners — but circumstances may have changed.

“This is the Five Star’s last shot,” said Massimiliano Panarari, author of a book on the Five Star Movement. Whereas it is still the biggest party in Parliament, its power would be hugely diminished if elections were held now, he said.

What could happen if a more moderate coalition took over?

A Five Star-PD coalition probably would send Salvini’s League back into the opposition and could result in a reversal of some of the party’s most controversial policies. It would be the only way to prevent a “budgetary catastrophe and an extremist drift,” said former center-left prime minister Matteo Renzi. 

As interior minister and deputy prime minister, Salvini capitalized on anti-migrant sentiment by prohibiting private rescue organizations from docking at Italian ports. The far-right leader also is considered a staunch skeptic of the euro.

A sudden departure from government may disrupt Salvini’s political momentum, which has seen him rise in the polls in recent months and gain a reputation as the country’s de facto leader.

“Staying on the outside and playing the part [that Salvini himself] called ‘Mr. No’ can be dangerous for him,” said Ilvo Diamanti, a pollster and professor of political science. “Yes, he would find new targets while being in the opposition, but . . . I don’t know about the long run.”

Does that mean Salvini has lost his gamble?

Not necessarily. A more moderate coalition could still work out in Salvini’s favor. Forming a new government without him and without a new vote could alienate some voters and boost his anti-establishment rallying cries.

And if there were snap elections within the next few weeks, he may even have a good shot at becoming Italy’s next prime minister.

What does all of this mean for populism in Europe?

Italy’s government crisis has put a preliminary end to a closely watched populist governing experiment. To some, including Stephen K. Bannon, former adviser to President Trump, that populist partnership represented a unique experiment with the potential of becoming a model elsewhere. The partnership, Bannon told The Washington Post last year, was akin to an alliance between Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

To more-moderate parties, the government’s demise may now serve as evidence that such partnerships are inherently unstable. 

“This is the end of across-the-board populism,” said Panarari, the author, referring to Italy’s broken coalition that had included both left- and far-right-leaning figures. 

The Italian government breakup came only months after the Austrian coalition government fell apart, amid turmoil that discredited the far-right coalition partner of then- Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a conservative. But in Italy, the experience in government has allowed the far right to grow its public profile in a way most far-right parties in Europe have so far not been able to do.

Noack reported from Berlin.

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