World / Politics

Italy's Conte pitches new government before Parliament votes as opposition protests


Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pitched lawmakers for support Monday ahead of crucial confidence votes on his 4-day-old, left-tilting coalition government while fielding insults during a boisterous Parliament session from an opposition outraged that Italy got a new government instead of a new election.

Much of the daylong session in the lower Chamber of Deputies resembled a soccer stadium with frenzied fans more than a hall of lawmakers weighing whether to confirm Italy’s second government of mismatched partners in 15 months.

Practically eclipsed in the raucous atmosphere was any debate over Conte’s policy promises — a government focused on economic growth and determined to keep Europe united.

“Buffoon,” and “elections, elections” were some of the milder taunts shouted from the ranks of the opposition.

In the square outside the Chamber, Matteo Salvini, the “Italians first” League party leader who brought down Conte’s first government, rallied a few thousand of his right-wing supporters and far-right voters and protested that citizens were clamoring for their say at the ballot box.

“Inside, there’s the regime that knows it’s about to fall and is acting like Marie Antoinette,” Salvini said, sarcastically likening Conte’s cobbled-together coalition to the tone-deaf attitude of the French queen.

Conte launched his own barbs at Salvini, who abruptly withdrew the League as a partner in the previous government in a bid for an early election that would make him prime minister.

“That every year a leader can think he can bring the country to elections is irresponsible,” Conte said.

The premier forged a new coalition last week out of bitter rivals, the populist 5-Star Movement that he led in a first coalition and the center-left Democratic Party. The two coalition partners’ main attraction to each other appeared to be determination to keep Salvini and his anti-migrant League out of power.

The firebrand League leader incorrectly bet that would trigger an early election to hand him the premiership and what he said would be “full powers” for his anti-migrant, euroskeptic forces.

To Salvini’s shock, Conte cobbled together the alternate coalition with the aid of a tiny left-wing party which has one minister in the Cabinet.

That gave Conte a fairly comfortable majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the first confidence vote was being held Monday night.

But the government’s margin majority in the Senate is tight. The Senate confidence vote is set for Tuesday.

If Conte loses, he must resign.

Conte vowed that his new government would solidly support a strong, united Europe and focus on getting Italy’s stubbornly stagnant economy growing again.

Buoyed by a League triumph in European Parliament elections this year, Salvini stiffened an already-tough government policy on illegal immigration, with a decree that harshly enforces a ban on charity migrant rescue boats from entering Italian ports.

Conte indicated that migrant policy will be tweaked, but gave no specifics.

One lawmaker from a tiny opposition party expressed ambivalence about the new coalition, still containing populists. However, Riccardo Magi, from the More Europe party, announced reluctant support, saying the risk of an “illiberal and anti-European drift” if Conte’s government falls would be worse.

Salvini and his allies have been crying foul. They contend Italians, who rewarded him in opinion polls with soaring popularity, deserved to have early elections.

“Our voice counts. They have to respect the people’s voice, we must vote,” said Daniela De Licio, who turned out for the rally outside Parliament from the Rome suburb of Tivoli.

Wary of yearslong bad blood between Democrats and 5-Stars, Conte called for political forces to “put aside egoism and old rancor.”

With the difficult task of slashing billions of euros from the 2020 state budget looming, Conte appealed to EU leaders for flexibility in spending rules.

Conte also insisted that EU nations take their share of asylum-seekers and refugees, who are fleeing poverty as well as persecution. Opinion polls show Italians favored the crackdowns on illegal immigration led by Salvini when he was interior minister.

Harsh EU fiscal rules, coupled with a perceived lack of EU solidarity as Italy struggled to serve huge numbers of migrants who headed to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, helped boost the popularity of Salvini’s “Italians First” League.