Italy’s populist coalition government has been thrown into crisis as the country’s right-wing figurehead looks to capitalise on a surging lead in the polls and forge a path to power.
Matteo Salvini, Italy's interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, recalled his parliamentarians from holiday on Friday, preparing the ground for a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Parliament had broken for the summer two days earlier.
Mr Salvini admonished the opposition and his coalition partners for taking a break at a time when Italy’s fate hung in the balance, apparently without irony, while he himself was at the beach. "There's nothing to say that we cannot make parliamentarians work in the middle of August," he told reporters.
For days, while drinking cocktails and playing DJ sets at beach locations such as Milano Marittima on the Adriatic, the leader of the junior partner in Italy’s populist government combined his potent everyman routine with devastating attacks on his coalition partners the 5 Star Movement and Mr Conte, who he seeks to replace.
However, the true motivation behind the so-called “Salvini beach tour” became clearer as the week went on. On Friday the League leader filed a no-confidence motion against the prime minister and his own coalition. Mr Salvini has said repeatedly that elections must follow and the Italian people should decide what happens next. Italians could go to the polls as early as October in their second general election in less than two years.
At least publicly his rivals are not shying away from a fight. "The time has gone for reconciliation. The crisis was not needed but it is going on and we cannot stop it," 5 Star MP Manilo Di Stefano told The National.
Mr Salvini has framed the government crisis around a vote over a high-speed train link with France that his party backed and 5 Star opposed. His coalition partners, led by Luigi Di Maio, have criticised the move as a thinly veiled grab at power which hurts Italians.
“They are not talking to the Italian issues. They are just playing a game with the election,” Mr Di Stefano explained. “This is the clear demonstration of Salvini deciding to have power even outside of the public benefit.”
He questioned whether Mr Salvini’s party and suitors for a potential far-right and centre-right coalition have the votes they claim. In the election last year, 5 Star won twice as many as of League. However the parties’ roles appear to have been reversed in the intervening 14 months. In May’s elections to the European Parliament the League won 35 per cent of the vote, 5 Star just 17 per cent.
Mr Salvini has soared in the polls principally because of his anti-immigration stance. Legislation spearheaded by the League and passed on Monday granted the interior minister powers to block ships carrying rescued migrants from entering Italian waters. Rescue boats that enter Italian jurisdiction without permission could be slapped with a fine of €1 million (Dh4.2m) under the new law.
Elsewhere Mr Salvini has burnished his credentials as an Italian strongman, embracing the security services, cracking down on Italy’s Roma minority and bashing the media in a string of posts on Facebook and Twitter.
Keen to capitalise on growing support on the Italian right, Forza Italia, the centre right Italian party led by the country’s flamboyant former president Silvio Berlusconi, is manoeuvring itself to play the role of kingmaker in a future right-wing coalition.
“We need a table where Mr Salvini, Mr Berlusconi and Ms Meloni sit down and write a Magna Carta, a document,” Forza Italia MP Giorgio Mule said, referring to Giorgia Meloni the leader of the extreme right-wing Fratelli d’Italia party. Ms Meloni and her party have repeatedly expressed their admiration for Italy’s fascist past and the period when the country was ruled by the Second World War dictator Benito Mussolini. If the League gets enough support it could form a coalition with Fratelli d’Italia alone.
Mr Mule expressed his admiration for Mr Salvini, whom he referred to as a “fantastic machine of communication”, but also voiced concerns about his authoritarian tendencies. He said he hoped Forza Italia might curb some of the worst excesses of a Salvini premiership.
Just after he pulled the plug on the coalition on Thursday, Mr Salvini told crowds of supporters gathered around him at a resort that he was asking Italians for full powers as leader and would not be shackled. To Mr Mule, this statement was worrying.
"Those words could be said by Mussolini or other dictators. You cannot say give him all the powers. This is a democracy. Democracy, parliamentary democracy, doesn't give powers to one person," the MP told The National. "I am worried, yes. People in Italy like the leader, the man alone in power. It's a democracy but they love the strong man."
Democratic Party MP Alessia Rotta said the historical parallels were obvious. "I am worried about democracy. It reminds me of the past, an ancient past," she told The National.
She also accused Mr Salvini of using the elections as a smoke screen to distract from the scandals that have dogged him in office. The League leader has had to repeatedly dodge questions over links to Russia, amid reports that a close aide sought to secure millions in Russian oil money to fund the party. Three days ago Italy’s supreme court upheld a ruling to confiscate €49m from the party over a fraud case involving its founder, Mr Salvini’s predecessor Umberto Bossi.
Mr Salvini’s path to Italy’s top job remains unclear. Party heads in the senate are to meet on Monday to discuss a timetable for a vote of no confidence, frustrating his desire to forge ahead immediately with unseating Mr Conte. A dramatic swing away from the League in the potential upcoming elections and parliamentary arithmetic could also thwart his ambition.
However, the League leader has seized the initiative and has already started to paint those prevaricating in the face of the crisis he has created as working against the Italian people. Italians had the right to vote once again in fresh elections, Mr Salvini said on Friday, adding he was starting to get a “strange feeling” that they might be denied that right.