ROME — After 14 months of wrangling, Italy’s government collapsed on Tuesday, plunging a key European nation already hobbled by financial fragility and political chaos into a new period of crisis and uncertainty.
During the government’s short tenure, the nationalist-populist coalition struck fear into the hearts of the European establishment. He has antagonized the European Union, flouted its budget laws, demonized migrants and embraced President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia and his strongman politics.
[Update: Italy’s new government takes shape, sidelining Salvini and the hard right.]
But any relief may be short-lived among critics who have accused the government of isolating and weakening Italy by radically reorienting the country’s place in Europe.
The governing coalition of the far-right anti-migrant League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement fell apart after a mutineer power play by Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League and the interior minister of increasingly popular in the country.
This month Mr Salvini, 46, announced he had had enough of Five Star incompetence and inaction and launched a bid for a snap election, asking Italian voters to give him a vote. absolute power to consolidate his hold on the country.
Mr. Salvini can still get his wish. But for now, there remains the possibility that his growing list of political enemies could form a new coalition government that freezes him from power. At least in the immediate term, things did not go as Mr. Salvini had planned.
During an extraordinary session of parliament on Tuesday which interrupted Italy’s usually sacrosanct summer vacation, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte accused Mr Salvini, seated next to him with his chin raised, of ‘political opportunism’ ‘ for withdrawing his support from the government in hopes of taking power for himself.
The betrayal had plunged the country into a “vortex of political uncertainty and financial instability”, Mr Conte said. Rather than bother with a vote of confidence that Mr Salvini had forced on him, the Prime Minister said he would hand in his resignation to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, bringing down the government and leaving Mr Salvini without immediate path to power.
Mr Mattarella will now begin the process of consultation with party leaders to see if a new majority can form another Italian government. Otherwise, he will likely call a snap election, potentially as early as October.
Mr Salvini replied that he did not fear judgment from Italians, unlike others in parliament who he said clung to their posts for fear of losing the election. “We are not afraid,” he said.
“If good God and the Italian people let me come back to government,” Mr. Salvini told the Senate, as he proudly spoke of his closing Italian ports to migrants, “I will do it again.”
Since the March 2018 election that brought them to power, Mr. Salvini and his five-star counterpart, Luigi Di Maio, had turned the country into a social media reality show, non-stop talking and bickering via Facebook Live or Twitter on their opposing positions on infrastructure. projects, taxes, regional autonomy and even beach holidays.
On Tuesday, Mr. Di Maio, 33, could hardly suppress his joy as Mr. Conte, standing between him and Mr. Salvini, accused the interior minister of exploiting Catholic symbols on the campaign trail and failing to respond to accusations that his League party had secretly sought funds from Russia.
“Dear Matteo, in pushing this crisis you have taken on a great responsibility,” Mr. Conte said, adding that he “was concerned” about Mr. Salvini’s demand for full powers and his supporters to fill the country’s squares. in protest.
Over the past year, Mr Salvini’s popularity has doubled to almost 40%, which is seen as a ceiling in Italy’s fragmented politics as he has consistently outflanked and embarrassed the Five Star Movement inexperienced.
Five Star’s support has halved, making the election perilous for the continued employment of its members in Parliament.
As Mr Salvini’s support grew, he shunned Italy’s traditional alliances for closer relations with nationalists in Hungary, Poland and Russia. Meanwhile, the country’s financial situation has worsened.
Growth hovered around zero percent and the government proved ineffective in the face of skyrocketing youth unemployment and a public debt of over 2 trillion euros, or about $2.2 trillion, which is more than 130% of Italy’s annual economic output.
The yield spread between Italian and German benchmark 10-year bonds, seen as a measure of risk for investing in Italy, remained high for much of their tenure.
This month Mr Salvini used the government’s paralysis on infrastructure projects as justification to announce the death of the government – “the majority is no more”, he said – and to call for new elections. “Let’s listen to voters, quickly,” he said.
This is something the Five Star Movement, and many of Mr Salvini’s other rivals, do not want at a time when the interior minister’s popularity is so high. The prospect of elections has increased their incentive to strike their own deal to govern.
Feeling betrayed by Mr. Salvini, the Five Star Movement seemed increasingly open to an alliance with its longtime rivals in the center-left Democratic Party.
For years Mr Di Maio and former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, still a power broker within the Democratic Party, have been sworn enemies. Now, however, they can find common cause by avoiding a new election, staying in parliament and stripping Mr Salvini of his power and campaign-friendly perch as interior minister.
But whether the two can overcome their mutual animosity to form a majority is still unclear and the subject of behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Mr Renzi, speaking in the Senate, argued that while populism works well on the campaign trail, “it works less well when it comes to governing”. He also took a parting shot at Mr Salvini, who he said owed it to the Italians to make it clear whether he wanted to ‘leave the euro or get into the rouble’.
Mr. Renzi has spent the past few years swearing never to associate with Five Star, accusing it of spreading hate, misinformation and a dangerous anti-expert philosophy.
But in recent days he has changed his tune as an alliance with Five Star could now provide a reservoir of oxygen for a remarkable political resuscitation.
Mr Mattarella, the head of state vested with enormous powers during a government crisis, also has his motives for avoiding snap elections, which Italy’s constitution says should be a last resort.
The most pressing reason is the need for a government capable of avoiding an automatic sales tax hike by approving budget cuts to balance Italy’s costly programs and extraordinary debt by the end of the year. .
If no new political majority forms, Mr Mattarella can call on the institutional figures of parliament, including the presidents of both chambers, to try to form a government that can survive a vote of confidence.
Another option is for Mr. Mattarella to empower a technical government of nonpartisan experts, which, once validated by a vote of confidence, would also have the ability to pass a budget and govern.
If those options prove impossible, Mr Mattarella could install a time-limited government to guide Italy to a snap election, most likely in October or November, but likely denying him time to hammer out a fiscal plan. .
Meanwhile, Italy, already in financial difficulty and seeing its influence decline abroad, finds itself in a mess of its own. And the crisis is likely to fuel the forces that have made Mr. Salvini the most popular, if not the most powerful, politician in the country.
Mr Salvini’s support “will not disappear overnight”, said Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at Luiss, a university in Rome.
The League leader’s political opponents, he said, were betting they could undermine Mr Salvini’s support and momentum by delaying the election long enough for Italians to tire of him.
The plan, he said, could backfire and increase public support for Mr. Salvini. “If there’s one thing voters don’t like,” he said, “it’s feeling like their opinion doesn’t matter.”