Italy Premier Drops Coalition Peacemaker Role as Chiefs Feud

(Bloomberg) -- The referee, it seems, has taken sides.

After spending much of the last 10 months acting as a mediator between the feuding deputy premiers who hold the real power in Italy’s government, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appears to have sided with one of them: the Five Star Movement’s Luigi Di Maio.

Italy Premier Drops Coalition Peacemaker Role as Chiefs Feud

When Conte on Thursday called for the resignation of a cabinet undersecretary who comes from the League, the other party in the coalition, he may have tipped the scales from playing a consensus-seeking role to one in which his own political leanings are surfacing.

The official, Armando Siri, became the latest bone of contention between the two sides of the coalition after prosecutors named him in a corruption investigation. Leaders of Five Star, which has long campaigned on a clean-politics platform, have been calling for his removal ever since. The League, led by party chief Matteo Salvini, has defended him.

Conte, who belongs to neither party, initially sought to mediate in the Siri case, as he has done throughout a year of conflicts in the coalition, on issues from taxes to infrastructure to environmental policy. But pressure from Five Star appears to have swayed the prime minister, who called for the lawmaker to step down during a news conference on Thursday.

Siri offered an olive branch just minutes before the news conference started, saying he’d resign within 15 days if his case isn’t dismissed. The resignation would still have come before the May 26 European Parliament elections, a crucial test of strength between the League and Five Star.

Conte passed on Siri’s offer, saying he’ll ask the next cabinet meeting to vote on dismissing the lawmaker.

Salvini, who accused Five Star of pumping up the Siri issue to create a crisis, said Saturday the government will last, denying newspaper reports that the League is preparing for a coalition collapse after the European Parliament elections.

The League leader also signaled that his non-stop campaign of political vitriol may now target the prime minister as well as Five Star.

“Conte should challenge me on taxation, on things that matter to Italians,” Salvini said while campaigning in central Italy on Friday. The League leader, who reportedly is barely on speaking terms with Di Maio, said Friday he hasn’t spoken to Conte since his announcement on the Siri case.

Law Professor

Conte, a 54-year-old law professor, was plucked from obscurity by Salvini and Di Maio last year to serve as the face of their unlikely populist coalition. While never actually a Five Star member, Conte was affiliated with the party in the past and Di Maio once named him as a possible candidate to head the public administration ministry.

Despite the premier’s now-clear position, the Siri case is far from over. Italian prime ministers don’t actually have the power to remove undersecretaries. Instead, the case is expected to be taken up at the next cabinet meeting, with verbal fireworks likely. Conte said Saturday the government will last the entire legislature, according to comments cited by Ansa.

While Salvini says the government won’t collapse over the case, it’s proving useful fodder in the run-up to the election May 26, when the League is expected to win more votes than its coalition partner, flipping the script on last year’s national election, when Five Star emerged as Italy’s biggest party.

Di Maio on Friday attempted to play down the conflict, saying, “Salvini is an intelligent person, and he cares about this government, letting it fall over this probe seems a stretch."

“While Five Star has suffered a steady decline in support since coming to power last spring, the party has taken a more confrontational approach toward the League, and shifted leftward,” Eurasia analyst Federico Santi wrote in a note Friday. “This has resulted in a further increase in tensions ahead of the vote.”

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