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An Italian Power Play

An Italian Power Play

Imagine: It's October 2019, and European bureaucrats are facing down a brash leader who has promised to bring Brussels to heel. No, not Boris Johnson, who appears increasingly determined to take the UK out of the EU on October 31. I'm talking about Matteo Salvini.

Italy's right-wing interior minister plunged the country's government into turmoil on Friday by demanding a no-confidence vote in Europe's third-biggest economy. It's the beginning of the end for the uneasy, 14-month-old governing coalition between his right-wing Lega party and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. Salvini visited a string of Italian beaches in his swim trunks over the weekend to take his case to Italian voters. Parliamentarians have been summoned back from summer holidays; the Italian senate is due to meet today to decide on a date for a no-confidence vote, which could take place as soon as tomorrow.

An anti-immigration crusader who has risked sanctions by pushing ahead with big tax cuts that would break the EU's budget rules, Salvini is gambling that an early vote will allow Lega to consolidate its growing popularity in Italy and install him as prime minister. His chances look decent: One recent poll put Lega's support in Italy at 36 percent, double that of 5-Star, and also comfortably ahead of the more mainstream center-left Democratic Party (PD). Rules that give any party or group of parties that win 40 percent of the votes in a national election in Italy a "bonus" allotment of seats could allow Salvini to form a government without former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, instead relying on the smaller Brothers of Italy party, which Salvini much prefers. Investors reacted nervously on Monday to the prospect of a budgetary showdown between an emboldened Salvini and the EU.

The gambit could backfire. Parties seen as breaking up a government tend to suffer in subsequent polls in Italy. Matteo Renzi, the former PD prime minister, has suggested banding together with rival factions to block a Lega takeover. Lega is also facing an unfolding scandal about top party aides' attempts to solicit funding from Russia ahead of European elections this past May that could complicate citizens' choices in a new poll.

But if Salvini and Lega win, it could embolden a politician whose rants against immigrants and Brussels have resonated with Italian voters fed up with traditional political parties. For the EU this autumn, the biggest source of political turmoil may not be a charismatic politician who wants to take his country out of the bloc, but one who wants to stay in and wreak political havoc.

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When Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday — plunging the country into chaos as it faces once-in-a-generation public health and economic crises — he became the fourteenth Italian to vacate the prime ministership in three decades. (For contrast, Germany has only had three chancellors since 1982, and France has had five presidents.)

But Conte, who had no previous political experience until he was tapped for the top job in 2018, is not so much throwing in the towel as he is taking a massive gamble that President Sergio Mattarella will again appoint him to head Conte's third coalition government in less than three years.

The recent dysfunction is unique even within the context of instability-prone Italian politics. How did Italy get here, and what might come next?

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Ian Bremmer shares his perspective on global politics on this week's World In (More Than) 60 Seconds:

What did you think of Xi Jinping's speech at the virtual World Economic Forum?

Well, his last speech at the real World Economic Forum in Davos, I remember being there four years ago, and given that Trump had just been elected, Xi Jinping gives this big, "We want to stand up and be leaders while the Americans are doing America first." And generally speaking, was probably the most important speech of the week. People liked it. This is a pretty different environment, not so much because Trump has gone, but rather because support and belief in Xi Jinping is pretty low. I will say one thing that was generally well responded to was the call not to enter into a new Cold War. Anybody in the business community generally supports that. There's so much integration and interdependence between the US and the Chinese economies that when Xi Jinping says, "We need to find ways to continue to work together," I mean, this is the pro-globalization audience he's speaking to. They generally agree. But otherwise, the message fell pretty flat. So, the idea that China is going to be globally useful on issues of leadership, especially when it comes to anything that might threaten Beijing's sovereignty, they check global norms at the door. And a few examples of that, when Xi called for support for the rules-based international order, that's in obvious contrast with China's violation of the one country, two systems framework in Hong Kong. And they said, "Well, that's a domestic issue." Well, actually that's not what your agreement was with the British handover. And just because you're more powerful doesn't mean that norm doesn't matter anymore.

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Over the weekend, some 40,000 people in Moscow and thousands more across Russia braved subzero temperatures to turn out in the streets in support of imprisoned Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny. More than 3,000 protesters were arrested, and Navalny called on his followers to prepare for more action in the coming weeks.

But just who is Alexei Navalny, and how significant is the threat that he may pose to Vladimir Putin's stranglehold on power in Russia?

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Angry farmers take Indian fort: In a major and violent escalation of ongoing protests over new agriculture laws, thousands of Indian farmers broke through police barricades and stormed the historic Red Fort in New Delhi on Tuesday. At least one protester died in the chaos, while the government shut down internet service in parts of the capital. Farmers and the government are still deadlocked over the new laws, which liberalize agriculture markets in ways that farmers fear will undercut their livelihoods. The government has offered to suspend implementation for 18 months, but the farmers unions are pushing for a complete repeal. Given that some 60 percent of India's population works in agriculture, the standoff has become a major political test for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling BJP party.

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The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

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