Italy’s prime minister resigned on Tuesday night, accusing his deputy Matteo Salvini of wrecking the populist coalition and seeking “full powers”, a reference to the authoritarian regime of Benito Mussolini.
Giuseppe Conte brought the 14-month coalition between Mr Salvini’s hard-Right League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to an official end by tendering his resignation to Italy’s president.
In an hour-long address to parliament, the prime minister lambasted Mr Salvini, accusing him of precipitating the crisis in the hope of forcing a general election which he would have a strong chance of winning.
In an oblique reference to Italy’s Fascist past, Mr Conte said: “I heard you calling for ‘full powers’ and invoking (demonstrations in) the piazzas to support you, which worries me.”
Mussolini assumed so-called full powers in 1922 and went onto to govern Italy with an iron hand until he was executed by partisans towards the end of the war.
“We have no need for men with full powers, but for those who have an institutional culture and a sense of responsibility,” the prime minister told a packed parliament.
The leader of the League had put “personal and party interests” in front of those of the country in initiating the crisis, said Mr Conte, a lawyer who was appointed as an arbitrator between the coalition partners.
He criticised Mr Salvini for putting Italy at risk of a "dizzying spiral of political and financial instability" in the months ahead.
He said Mr Salvini should have addressed allegations that his party sought millions of euros in funding from Russia through an illegal oil deal – accusations that Mr Salvini has vehemently denied.
Mr Salvini was sitting next to him throughout the speech and frequently shook his head or gesticulated to supporters.
He struck a defiant note when he addressed parliament, saying he had no regrets and would “do it all again”.
“I don’t fear Italians’ judgment,” he said.
The crisis was sparked earlier this month when Mr Salvini announced the coalition was irrevocably broken after the League and Five Star disagreed over the building of a high-speed rail link from Turin to Lyons.
The resignation of Mr Conte, although anticipated, plunges Italy into weeks and possibly months of political uncertainty.
President Sergio Mattarella must now sound out the country’s political parties to see who can form a new government.
One option would be for the Five Star Movement to form a new alliance with the centre-Left Democratic Party.
He has called it “a shameful scam which would betray the will of the people.”
He wants Italy to hold new elections and would likely be able to form a new, Right-wing government in coalition with the far-Right Brothers of Italy party.
The League is polling at around 38 per cent and is by far the most popular party in Italy. An alliance with Brothers of Italy would bring another 5-6 per cent.
The crisis comes as Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, must prepare its 2020 budget plans and submit them to the EU – the deadline is at the end of the year.
A new coalition between Five Star and the Democratic Party would be no guarantee of stability for Italy because the two parties have sharp policy differences.
If no majority can be found, then the country will head to new elections which could be held as early as October.
With a huge national debt that amounts to 132 per cent of its GDP, Italy is in desperate need of a stable government.
Since the fractious coalition was formed last summer, political instability and market worries have cost the country an extra five billion euros in interest on its debt, the financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore reported.
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