Salvini’s Ally (and Rival) Could Now Help Him Avoid Facing Trial

(Bloomberg) -- Italy’s Deputy Premiers Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini seem to fight over everything, but now, Di Maio may be set to throw his coalition partner and political rival a lifeline, helping him avoid a trial in a migrant case that threatens to bring the government to its knees.

Di Maio’s Five Star Movement, which governs in a shaky coalition with Salvini’s League, is preparing to bow to pressure and help block a legal case sparked by his refusal to let a migrant ship dock last summer. The issue goes before a Senate committee in Rome on Thursday.

Five Star members of the immunity committee will likely vote to hold off legal proceedings against Salvini to avoid a government collapse, according to three of the party’s parliamentary officials, who declined to be named discussing confidential deliberations.

The committee is tasked with deciding whether Salvini’s parliamentary immunity should be lifted, allowing him to stand trial on a kidnapping charge from the migrant episode. Salvini denies any wrongdoing in the case, the latest in a string of disputes straining the populist government.

Salvini Dominance

An outcome favorable to Salvini would further underscore his domination of the coalition. Buoyed by soaring poll numbers for the League, it’s Salvini who’s been seen as calling the shots in Rome, with Five Star wary of any moves that could bring the government down and risk early elections.

While both party leaders insist the government won’t collapse over the case involving the Coast Guard ship Diciotti, it’s clearly straining the coalition, and pushing Five Star to the brink.

The anti-establishment Five Star made its name on opposition to Italian lawmakers’ numerous perks, including parliamentary immunity. The party risks losing even more ground in voter surveys if it disappoints grassroots supporters at a time when the two allies are waging a permanent election campaign ahead of May’s European Parliament vote.

To avoid a trial, the government needs to maintain Salvini’s immunity so the issue does not go before the full Senate, where Five Star would be unable to marshal its troops, one of the officials said.

‘No Choice’

“Five Star has no choice, it has to help Salvini because it doesn’t want the government to collapse before the European elections,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome’s Luiss University. “The League is much more able than Five Star -- the migrant case boosts Salvini’s popularity.”

Salvini insists the refusal to allow 177 migrants aboard the Diciotti to disembark in Sicily in August was a government decision, not a move he made unilaterally as interior minister. He submitted a document to the Senate late Wednesday saying he acted in the public interest and in line with European Union decisions on resettlement of migrants.

“We’ve always been against using immunity, but this is a specific case,” Di Maio told reporters in Rome on Wednesday. “Every time other people have bet on the government falling, we’ve won the bet.”

Party Lieutenants

Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Transportation Minister Danilo Toninelli filed separate statements to the Senate supporting Salvini’s position that the Diciotti decision was taken by the government as a whole. The committee is due to reach a decision by the end of February.

As the League and Five Star have clashed on everything from immigration, to autonomy for northern regions, to a high-speed rail link with France, Salvini has come under pressure from some party lieutenants to pull the plug on the government.

Underscoring the divide on the $10 billion rail project, Toninelli, a Five Star member, presented a long-awaited cost-benefit analysis to the French ambassador to Rome this week, without showing it to League colleagues.

“I’m the deputy prime minister who represents Italians and I don’t have the cost-benefit analysis, but apparently they’ve given it to Paris, that’s pretty bizarre,” Salvini said Wednesday.

“Salvini can calm down, I haven’t read the cost-benefit analysis either,” Di Maio responded.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.