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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