Conte Takes On Salvini as League Chief Weakened by ‘Russiagate’

(Bloomberg) --

Matteo Salvini, known as “the Captain” to his supporters, is on the defensive for the first time since Italy’s populist government came to power more than a year ago.

Under pressure from Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, his coalition ally and lawmakers, Deputy Premier Salvini has sought to shake off a scandal over purported Russian funding for his rightist League party. Conte and fellow Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement have urged him to speak in parliament about the case.

Salvini, the dominant force in the government, pledged Tuesday that he’ll speak to lawmakers “because it’s part of my job,” news wire Radiocor cited him as saying during a visit to Genoa. “I go to parliament every week for question time, I will reply to the questions I’m asked,” Salvini said.

Conte took aim at Salvini after the League grabbed the spotlight by beginning work on next year’s budget without involving the premier. A lawyer plucked out of obscurity last year to lead the coalition, Conte accused Salvini of “institutional impropriety” for unilaterally convening regional and labor leaders to discuss economic issues.

Salvini has used his sweeping victory in European parliamentary elections in May to demonstrate his strength, threatening to bring Italy back to the polls if his demands aren’t met.

Conte Takes On Salvini as League Chief Weakened by ‘Russiagate’

Salvini associate Gianluca Savoini on Monday opted to remain silent when questioned by Milan magistrates on what’s being dubbed “Russiagate.” Conte responded “why not?” when asked whether the League leader should be forced to appear before parliament to answer questions about the affair.

With Five Star weakened after its poor showing in the May elections, Conte has emerged as the main counterweight to the surging Salvini. The premier has threatened to quit if the two parties don’t stop bickering, and like last year he’s taken the leading role in negotiations with the European Union on Italy’s debt.

Still, Salvini has insisted his party has been unblemished by the Russia scandal, which he’s termed “surreal.” And he continues to threaten to pull the plug on the government if his policy demands, including a flat tax and more powers for northern regions in his electoral stronghold, aren’t met.

Election Window

Conte and Five Star have been anxiously watching Salvini in recent days, as one window for the League leader to trigger early elections is set to close on July 20. Salvini would have to provoke a government crisis before that date for early elections to be held in time for a new administration to tackle the 2020 budget in the fall.

The party’s popularity has continued to rise even after the revelations last week by Buzzfeed News. Salvini said on Monday, and an opinion poll released by La 7 television appeared to back him up, that the League’s surge isn’t being affected by the scandal. The League inched up 0.2 percentage points to 37.7% in that poll.

While time is running out to prepare for a return to elections by September, those numbers could still tempt Salvini to ditch Five Star, as most analysts set 40% as the level needed to govern without a coalition partner.

Salvini, however, may be concerned that there is no guarantee President Sergio Mattarella would call early elections, and could instead seek an alternative majority for a technocratic government, according to Rome daily Il Messaggero.

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