Italy’s fractious coalition parties erupt into conflict
Tensions between Italy’s ruling coalition parties have erupted into open conflict, fuelling speculation that the unsteady alliance, which took power last June, could split.
Deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party Matteo Salvini is threatening to pull the plug on its alliance with the anti-establishment Five Star movement, under significant pressure from within his party.
Mr Salvini’s chief grievances include Five Star’s decision to back a mainstream German candidate, Ursula von der Leyen, to become president of the European Commission.
He is also unhappy that coalition colleagues Luigi Di Maio, also a deputy prime minister and leader of Five Star, and prime minister Giuseppe Conte have not backed him against accusations that his party sought financing from Russia.
Mr Salvini accused Five Star of betraying ordinary voters after promising to bring radical change to Europe. “There is a lack of trust, even at a personal level,” he said in Helsinki on Thursday. “If there is no further point in continuing with this government, then we will head to elections.”
Mr Salvini said he would meet Mr Di Maio for talks on Friday, but opened up new fronts with other Five Star cabinet ministers, including transport minister Danilo Toninelli, who he accused of blocking infrastructure projects.
He also attacked defence minister Elisabetta Trenta for proposing to send Navy ships back to the southern Mediterranean, which he said “would attract new migrant departures and business for the smugglers”.
The fresh bout of political uncertainty dealt a blow on Friday to Italian markets. The 10-year Italian government bond yield rose 0.072 percentage points to 1.63 per cent, suggesting prices on the debt were under pressure. That pushed the closely watched gap in yields between Italian bonds and German Bunds of the same maturity to 1.95 percentage points from 1.87 points on Thursday.
Italy’s benchmark FTSE Mib index dropped 1.6 per cent on Friday.
Following European parliamentary elections in May, the League became the largest party in Italy ahead of senior coalition partner Five Star, which polled at just 17 per cent. A poll last week put support for the League at 37.7 per cent.
The government’s relations were thrown into fresh turmoil last week when allegations surfaced of a meeting between League representatives and Russian businessmen, allegedly to discuss a deal to covertly receive $65m in party funding.
Both Mr Di Maio and Mr Conte have called on Mr Salvini to answer to parliament on the matter, and for an investigation into all party finances. In an open letter to an Italian newspaper on Thursday, Mr Conte said he “would not lend support to opaque or ambiguous operations”.
In recent days, divisions have been heightened after the League refused to back Mrs von der Leyen’s candidacy in the European Parliament.
Mr Conte said that the League’s failure to vote for her was “against the national interest” and put remaining negotiations for commission places at risk.
The League is also aggrieved over stalled efforts to hand greater regional autonomy to the party’s northern strongholds.
Mr Di Maio on Friday launched an appeal to Mr Salvini, suggesting they meet. A cabinet meeting that took place at midday could have provided an opportunity to find a truce. But Mr Salvini did not attend, saying he had a personal commitment.
The window for pulling out of the coalition closes on Sunday, according to many political commentators. After that date, calling for fresh elections would get in the way of approving the 2020 budget in time for the EU’s October 15 deadline.
But Mr Salvini is said to be considering elections later in the autumn, a first for Italy.
Rumours of a coalition crisis swirled on Thursday when it emerged that Mr Salvini had requested to meet president Sergio Mattarella. But Mr Salvini told Rete 4 television that the government “would not fall tomorrow”.
“I am going ahead calmly . . . but if I have to hear ‘no’ every day then it gets difficult,” he said.