Italian senators don't often interrupt their summer vacations but thanks to the firebrand populist Matteo Salvini, the country's deputy prime minister and head of the Lega party, they had to return to a scorching hot capital Tuesday to discuss when to hold a formal vote of no-confidence in Italy's tempestuous 14-month-old coalition government.
Italy's politicians traditionally avoid serious politicking during the vacation weeks of high summer when much of the country decamps to the beaches for a long break. Salvini, a master of disruptive populism, chose last week, however, to announce he could no longer continue governing in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement.
"Not all marriages work," quipped Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, who has acted as an informal consigliere, or adviser, to Salvini. "I think that the marriage between Salvini and Di Maio was a noble experiment," Bannon told the Corriere Della Sera newspaper, referring to Luigi Di Maio, the head of the Five Star Movement.
The divorce has been on the cards since last May's European parliamentary elections when the Lega doubled its support from 17% to 34%, prompting not only Salvini's glee, but predictions from most analysts that he'd likely collapse the squabbling coalition government and angle for a snap election to capitalize on his growing public backing.
Since May, Salvini, who's generally credited with having consistently wrong-footed his partner and rival Di Maio since the coalition was formed, artfully using social media to do so, has been even more disruptive. Salvini has earned the disapproval of Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte, a relatively unknown lawyer who was plucked from obscurity to head the government.
And while many other politicians wound down their activities this month, Salvini has been waging an unofficial election campaign on Italian beaches, skipping from one to another and criss-crossing the country.
Last week, in Sabaudia, south of Rome, he realized he was standing next to a monument celebrating fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. "You'll get me into trouble," he told chuckling supporters. "I won't say anymore. They'll arrest me," he added.
"The balance of power in May was essentially reversed between the coalition partners, with the Lega winning a much larger share of the vote," says Cecilia Sottilotta, a political scientist at the American University in Rome.
"Salvini is extremely shrewd, is very well-prepared in terms of strategy and reading changes in public opinion. Salvini's party is likely to get 35 to 36 percent of the vote in elections in virtually any scenario, which means he could get a comfortable majority by forming an alliance with other right-wing parties, such as the Brothers of Italy," she says.
Italy's ill-fated coalition government took 88 days to form following inconclusive parliamentary elections in March 2018, which saw the traditional left vote collapse. Salvini took the role of deputy prime minister, as well as interior minister, vowing to crack down on undocumented migrants and see-off attempts by Brussels to control public spending in Italy. Di Maio also was appointed deputy prime minister and labor minister.
Problems appeared almost immediately with the partners clashing over the Five Star Movement's plan for an income scheme to address poverty. The leaders also battled over a Lega plan to introduce a flat tax rate. And over immigration and Salvini's banning of humanitarian rescue ships form docking at Italian ports to unload migrants picked up off the coast of Libya.
The last big dispute came just days before Salvini announced last Thursday his intention to withdraw from the coalition. Five Star Movement ministers objected to plans for a high-speed alpine rail link between the Italian city of Turin and the French city of Lyon. But many commentators say Salvini has used the disagreement as an excuse to collapse the coalition.
The Lega said in a statement it was "useless to go ahead with daily quarrels," and last week Salvini told a boisterous crowd of supporters at a rally in the coastal city of Pescara, "Italy can no longer put up with the nos, we need yeses, we need to unblock, to build, to work — enough is enough, we must go to elections."
Once a vote of no confidence is passed, elections will have to be held within 70 days, making October the most likely month for a new nationwide poll. Italians traditionally hold elections in spring months, and the last time a poll took place in an Italian autumn was in 1919.
That election triggered three years of violent political and social conflict, advancing the rise of Benito Mussolini. The significance of the 1919 election isn't lost on Salvini foes, who portray the 46-year-old as Mussolini reborn.
The party with which he's likely to form a coalition government, if everything goes according to his plans, is the Brothers of Italy. Critics note that party traces its history back to Mussolini's fascist party. The comparisons with Mussolini are dismissed by Salvini, although he thrives on vexing his opponents by slyly invoking the spirt of the country's 20th century dictator.
He has tweeted regularly the phrase, "So many enemies, so much honor," a paraphrase of Mussolini's slogan. Even so, few neutral commentators believe Salvini is intent on dismantling Italian democracy.
Meanwhile, Salvini, has been shrugging off allegations that his populist party sought secret Russian funding and is doubling down on his defense of "Christian culture" and the issue that has rewarded him the most in the voting booths — immigration.
While prosecutors in the Milan probe claim the far-right Lega party solicited covert Russian funding, he has been stepping up the tempo and fervor of his anti-migrant broadsides in rallies and on his social media sites, linking migration to crime and to joblessness and warning of threats to Italy's traditional culture.
In Pescara, Salvini announced to cheers from supporters, "This country needs rules, order and discipline." And he labeled a Roma who had criticized him a "bad gypo." "If you want to break our balls. Go back your country."
Salvini critics say he's purposely trying to distract attention away from the Russia allegations, and away from the country's ailing economy, which remains stubbornly mired in recession.
His erstwhile coalition partner, Di Maio, has said triggering a government crisis now is "foolish and dangerous." A former Italian prime minister, the centrist Enrico Letta, dubbed Salvini an "opportunist" who has "no principles," and he warned that the Lega boss could be leading the country out of the European Union — saying an Italian Brexit "was not impossible."
But Salvini — who has toned down his Euro-skepticism in recent months — dismisses Letta's EU warning as "fantasy." "The idea of leaving Europe, leaving the euro has never been in the pipeline," Salvini told reporters during a rally near Matera, in southern Italy.
Salvini faces a possible snare in his path to fresh elections. The Five Star Movement could join opposition parties to try to form a new coalition government — encouraged to do so by the country's president, Sergio Mattarella, who has the sole power to dissolve parliament and even the power to appoint a government of technocrats. He has said he doesn't want elections before next year.