Italian Right Divided Over Syria as Push for Government Heats Up

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(Bloomberg) -- The missile attack on Syria is fueling tensions among Italy’s uncomfortable center-right alliance as President Sergio Mattarella casts about for a way to break a six-week impasse and install a new government.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Italy should stand alongside its NATO allies in a letter published by newspaper Corriere della Sera Sunday. But Matteo Salvini, the nationalist who asserted his control of their coalition in the March 4 election, said U.S. President Donald Trump’s offensive risks a revival of Islamic State.

“Someone who’s trigger-happy insists on ‘smart missiles,’ helping Islamic terrorists who’ve been almost defeated. Crazy, stop,” tweeted Salvini of the euroskeptic League.

Mattarella is expected to make his next move Wednesday or Thursday. He could ask Salvini or Luigi Di Maio, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, to try to form a government, or he could appoint a mediator.

It’s far from clear whether Salvini could win the confidence votes required to take office. While the center-right coalition has the most seats, it’s short of a majority and up to this point Salvini has failed to win additional allies.

As the political rivals cancel each other out, the euro-area’s third-biggest economy is lagging behind the rest of the currency bloc. Still, investors are concerned that a breakthrough could be even worse, bringing in Salvini or Di Maio at the head of a populist administration that would threaten Italy’s public finances and plans for more European integration.

Both leaders have promised spending hikes or tax cuts with only vague explanations of how they’ll finance them.

Mattarella’s Options

Di Maio heads the biggest single party, though he hasn’t managed to enlist extra support either. Alternatively, the president could ask Senate speaker Elisabetta Casellati, 71, or lower house speaker Roberto Fico, 43, to find out whether a majority is possible. The speakers would not become premiers.

Casellati, of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, told Sky TG24 television that such a mission “will certainly be difficult,” adding she hoped for an end to vetoes and “that each party can take a step back so the country can take a step forward.”

Other options, seen as less likely at this stage, include a third round of talks or naming a personality to head a grand coalition with all main parties urged to take part.

While Salvini has appealed to Di Maio for support, Five Star said it won’t join up with the League unless Salvini ditches Berlusconi’s party. The group sees Berlusconi, banned from public office over a tax-fraud conviction, as personifying the corrupt political class it rebels against.

Di Maio said he sided with Italy’s Western allies on the Syria offensive “especially because in this very delicate phase the European Union must have the strength to be compact and united” -- a stand which puts him closer to Berlusconi than Salvini.

Berlusconi insisted on Italy’s “obligations of solidarity” with European and Western allies and its “loyal and undisputed friendship first of all to the United States” in his Sunday letter.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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