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Italy PM Conte says to resign as crisis comes to a head

Tuesday August 20 2019

Giuseppe Conte

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reacts as he delivers a speech at the Italian Senate, in Rome, on August 20, 2019. He announced resignation during his speech at the Senate after calling Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini "irresponsible" to spark a political crisis by pulling the plug on the governing coalition. PHOTO | ANDREAS SOLARO | AFP 

AFP
By AFP
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ROME

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday he would resign, lashing out at far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini for pursuing his own interests by pulling the plug on the government coalition.

"I'm ending this government experience here... I will go to the president of the republic (Sergio Mattarella) to inform him of my resignation", after a Senate debate, Conte said after an almost hour-long speech to the chamber.

POLITICAL TURMOIL

"It is irresponsible to initiate a government crisis," Conte said after Salvini began his efforts to bring down the government in the hope of snap elections he hoped would make him premier.

"It shows personal and party interests," Conte said of the end of the alliance between the anti-migrant League and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.

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Conte was speaking following a week of fallout from Salvini's decision to back out of the alliance on August 8, plunging the eurozone's third-largest economy into political turmoil.

Afer Conte announced his intention to resign, Salvini hit back saying: "Thank you, finally, I would do it all again."

Salvini "violated the solemn promise he took when the government began that if there were differences they should be discussed in good faith and with loyal collaboration," Conte said as League senators booed and hissed.

"Making citizens vote is the essence of democracy, asking them to vote every year is irresponsible," Conte added.

"I heard you calling for 'full powers' and invoke (demonstrations in) the piazzas to support you, which worries me," Conte said.

Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in 1922 assumed so-called full powers to govern the country at his whim.

"We don't need full powers but leaders who have a sense of institutions," Conte said.

A small group of protesters heckled League senators as they arrived at the Senate.

"Get out, buffoons, get out mafia," the protesters shouted, prompting a League senator to wave his middle finger at them.

Other protesters held banners reading "I'm with Salvini".

The likely end of the 14-month-old government would open the way for Mattarella to begin consultations with political parties, with a range of options available.

A snap election, the forming of a new coalition without holding a new vote and, although unlikely, the continuation of the current government, would all be considered.

Ahead of the premier's speech, protesters unfurled a banner near parliament that read: "Conte, Italy loves you".

But Salvini told Radio 24 that the other parties feared new elections: "What is the point of a government with everyone 'against Salvini'? A government must be strong to be able to act."

The political crisis has raised concerns about the Italian economy, whose debt ratio at 132 percent of gross domestic product is the second-biggest in the eurozone after Greece.

Since the unwieldy government was formed in June 2018, uncertainty under the coalition has cost the country an extra five billion euros ($5.54 billion) in interest on its debt, the Il Sole 24 Ore financial newspaper reported.

Salvini's plan for a snap election -- more than three years early -- had envisioned a vote in October followed by him being crowned as prime minister.

According to opinion polls, the League could form a coalition with the anti-immigration, anti-LGBT Brothers of Italy, and possibly Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia.

But a bid by his rivals to put aside their differences and forge an alliance could derail Salvini's plan, with a coalition between M5S and the opposition centre-left Democratic Party (PD) being discussed.

While there is bad blood between the two parties, M5S is languishing in the polls and wants to avoid an early election.

A PD-M5S coalition could lead to the opposite of what Salvini intended -- with him out of government altogether instead of being its sole leader.

According to some analysts, Conte could also stay on as premier while trying to form an alliance with PD.

M5S leader Luigi Di Maio sent an open letter on Tuesday calling for Conte to take this option, describing him as a "rare pearl, a servant of the nation that Italy cannot lose".

Caught on the back foot, Salvini has sought to re-establish some coalition ties and said he would be willing to back a M5S proposal to cut the number of lawmakers from 950 to 605, but only if new elections were then swiftly held.

Salvini has been furious at the idea of being squeezed out by a M5S-PD alliance, saying he would get his supporters to "peacefully take to the streets" if it came about.

Salvini has also softened his tone regarding the premier, saying: "Conte remains my prime minister and my phone is always on."

But M5S founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, has rejected talk of reconciliation with Salvini, whom he reportedly described as an "untrustworthy traitor".