Italy’s political parties pitch rival plans to capture power

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ROME (AP) – In rapid-fire order, Italy’s three main political parties pitched possible deals to rivals Thursday as they scrambled to come out on top in Italy’s political crisis and shape the country’s future government.

All the drama came as President Sergio Mattarella was weighing whether a new coalition government or an early election would be the best way to resolve the crisis that abruptly brought down the populist government this week.

After party leaders offered Mattarella their strategies in private meetings throughout the day, the presidential Quirinal Palace announced that Mattarella was taking a few hours to reflect and would speak to reporters on Thursday night.

The day began with Parliament’s largest opposition party, the Democrats, signaling their willingness to work with their archrival, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, to try to cobble together a Europe-centric coalition solid enough to counter fast-rising nationalist leader Matteo Salvini and avoid an early election.

Salvini, leader of the right-wing, anti-migrant League, party, then unveiled his counter move. If Mattarella doesn’t embrace Salvini’s demand for an early election this fall, Salvini said he would consider a Cabinet overhaul with the 5-Stars, with whom the League had been governing for 14 months in the coalition led by Premier Giuseppe Conte.

Conte resigned Tuesday before the League could hold a no-confidence vote.

Salvini never yanked the League’s ministers from the government, including himself, keeping his portfolio as Italy’s anti-migrant interior minister in the caretaker government that remains with Conte at the helm for now.

The League leader told reporters after meeting with Mattarella that an early election is the best way out of the political crisis, which he engineered in a bid to snatch the premiership for himself.

“No one should fear the judgment of the people,” Salvini said.

Salvini and his right-wing nationalist party are riding high in opinion polls, and triumphed in the European Parliament election in May.

But then, as a backstop against the possibility that he could be forced out of office in coalition put together by the Democrats and the 5-Stars, Salvini dangled the possibility of a Cabinet overhaul that keeps his League party in a ruling coalition with the 5-Stars.

“If someone tells me ‘Let’s improve the team, let’s improve the aim,’ I’m a concrete man. I don’t hold grudges,” Salvini said.

Barely an hour later, 5-Star leader Luigi Di Maio, like Salvini a deputy premier, had his closed-door session with Mattarella. Di Maio then emerged to say while “the most convenient path is to head to a vote,” he’d be open to a political deal to keep the current legislature from ending 3½ years ahead of schedule.

“He who has courage isn’t the one who runs away, but who remains and tries to change things without giving up,” Di Maio said, referring to the 5-Stars’ slogan as a force for change.

Di Maio said he would try to pinpoint a “solid majority” in Parliament that could keep the legislature alive.

Earlier, Nicola Zingaretti, who leads the center-left Democrats, lobbied for the same solution: a coalition that could nail down durable, broad backing in Parliament.

“Not a government at any cost,” Zingaretti told reporters at the palace. “We need a government that changes direction, an alternative to the right, with a new, solid program, a broad base in Parliament which gives back hope to Italians.”

Yet creating a viable replacement for Conte’s collapsed government will prove a Herculean task for anyone.

Both the Democrats and the 5-Stars have been weakened by infighting – and over a year ago they failed to agree to a coalition deal after the 2018 election that ultimately brought Conte’s now-caretaker government to power.

Zingaretti said any new government formed now would have to pledge to protect the “pro-European vocation” of Italy. The 5-Stars, however, frequently depict European Union policies as infringing on Italy’s autonomy.

Mammoth state spending under Conte’s tenure, reflecting populist promises to voters by both the 5-Stars and the League, means whoever governs Italy for the rest of this year must slash tens of billions of euros from the proposed 2020 budget to avoid triggering higher sales taxes and other unpopular measures.

Salvini with his “Italians first” agenda has openly challenged the EU’s financial rules for the 19 nations including Italy who use the shared euro currency.

Former center-right leader Premier Silvio Berlusconi, who also met with Mattarella, warned against any “improvised majority that exists only in Parliament and not in the country.”

The media mogul described his Forza Italia party – should it return to power in a right-wing government – as Italy’s best guarantee of having leaders that would back pro-European policies and make sure Italy does not abandon the euro currency.

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Frances D’Emilio is on twitter at www.twitter.com/fdemilio .

The League party leader Matteo Salvini talks to the press after meeting Italian President Sergio Mattarella, in Rome, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. President Sergio Mattarella continued receiving political leaders Thursday, to explore if a solid majority with staying power exists in Parliament for a new government that could win the required confidence vote. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
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