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How Italy’s ‘Captain’ Salvini steered his ship onto the rocks

September 4, 2019 at 9:43am
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At a closed-door meeting on August 6, Matteo Salvini’s advisers told the populist Italian politician he was trapped in an unproductive coalition government and should bring it down.

The next day, Salvini told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte he was pulling his League party out of its ruling alliance with the 5-Star Movement, hoping to trigger an election that would return him to power as the unquestioned leader of a new government.

The League’s eurosceptic leader, riding high in the opinion polls thanks to his hard line on immigration, had just made a major miscalculation.

Salvini’s plan rested on two key beliefs: that Conte would promptly resign, and that 5-Star and the opposition Democratic Party would be unable to bury their deep-rooted mutual enmity to join forces against him, five sources, including the League’s economy chief Claudio Borghi, told Reuters.

But Salvini was proved wrong on both counts.

Italy’s once-dominant politician, known as “The Captain” by his followers, is now on the verge of opposition wilderness, a mere spectator as 5-Star and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) form a government without him.

A master of galvanising the masses with his fiery rhetoric and social media savvy, Salvini’s dramatic reversal of fortune shows that he lacked a similar mastery of the political cut-and-thrust in the corridors of power in Rome.

Despite this summer’s chastening experience, Salvini does still remain a potent political force and could be back – especially if a new 5-Star/PD government proves short-lived.

Borghi told Reuters Salvini had been resisting internal party pressure to trigger elections, including from Borghi himself, but eventually relented at the August meeting.

“Lots of us were telling him he had to bring down the government, even though we know there were risks,” said Borghi, who attended the August 6 gathering.

Salvini’s plot to ditch 5-Star and win power alone after months of bickering over economic policies and relations with the European Union, started to go wrong from the off when Conte declined to relinquish power.

That was not what Salvini had expected. A senior League source said Salvini’s low-profile number two, Giancarlo Giorgetti, an eminence grise who does much of the party’s back-room power broking, had assured him Conte would go.

Instead Conte, a law professor plucked from obscurity to lead the coalition government, showed he had no intention of returning to academia. Rather than resign, he demanded to know why Salvini wanted to bring down the government and called for a transparent parliamentary debate.

With parliament in recess for the summer break, that meant lawmakers first had to be summoned from their holidays – giving them time to come up with a plan to thwart Salvini’s ambitions. (Reuters)

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