Italy's far-right populist Matteo Salvini has had his plans dashed to become the country's prime minister. His poll numbers have dropped since he precipitated a political crisis, hoping he could engineer a snap election, win and emerge, in his words, with "full powers."
But he has been out-maneuvered.
Salvini had not expected the outgoing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to emerge as a surprise rival. Nor that his erstwhile partners in a short-lived and troubled coalition government, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S), would forge a deal with the left wing Democratic Party (PD) and agree on a replacement coalition midweek with Conte as the new prime minister.
But will the sidelined Salvini be denied for long?
His loyalists scoff at the idea that Il Capitano, as they nickname him, will be kept at bay for long. They say that the old-school political maneuvering by the PD and the M5S — once sworn enemies — has merely planted the seeds for his return.
As the new cabinet of seven women and 11 men was sworn in, Salvini, the leader of Lega Party, accused dark forces of being behind the formation of the new government, saying "strong powers" within Europe were behind the new coalition.
"It won't last long," he tweeted. "Opposition in parliament, in town halls and in the squares, then finally we will vote and win."
Salvini says those who fear elections might escape a ballot for "three or six months," but in the end will have to face a Lega that is ready to give Italy a "strong and coherent" government and not one manipulated by the elites or foreign governments. His loyalists lap up the bellicose language.
But Salvini populist threats aside, it is hard to see how the new government will be less troubled than its predecessor.
The marriage between the PD and M5S is not one made in heaven and it is not clear how long they can cohere to bring some respite to the political drama. The one thing they have in common is fear of Matteo Salvini and a determination to halt the momentum Salvini, still the country's most popular politician, has been building electorally thanks partly to his adeptness in dominating news cycles.
M5S, founded by the quirky comic and blogger Beppo Grillo, built much of its success at the expense of the PD and has focused especially on the traditional strongholds of the left in the country's so-called Red Belt across central Italy and in the south. Until this week it has gone out of its way to humiliate the PD, linking it tirelessly to corruption and cronyism and accusing it of being out of touch with the working class.
And for months, PD leaders have said they would never enter a coalition government with the M5S.
A coalition between the two risks being another oddball alliance paralyzed by internal disputes, warn analysts. While the PD is pro-European Union, M5S is skeptical and at one time wanted to ditch the Euro currency, although it has now agreed with the PD to tone down its criticism of the EU. The new EU affairs minister, Vincenzo Amendola, a PD member, said, "the parties in this government will do their utmost not to quarrel with Brussels, not to have pointless fights or rows."
The new government — it still has to win confirming votes next in the Italian parliament — will only have a slender majority in Italy's upper house, the Senate, and that could cause major problems for the new coalition, say analysts, especially when it comes to sensitive legislation.
But the idea of a watching and waiting Salvini, who is ready to pounce, has lost some of his sheen. His triggering the crisis that led to his exclusion from the corridors of power was a strategic misstep for the normally sure-footed tactician, who throughout the 14-month-long coalition he served in as deputy prime minister was credited with catching his partner and rival Luigi Di Maio of the M5S, off guard, artfully using social media to do so.
Ambition and ebullience got the better of him, say commentators. And his rising poll numbers may have gone to his head: his far-right League party in Italy was nearing 39 percent in the opinion polls when he announced his party could no longer serve in government with the M5S. The Lega has dropped six percent in the past few days.
He now will be forced into "waiting for a mistake by the new majority," said Massimiliano Panarari, a politics professor at Luiss University in Rome. Italian publisher and commentator Alberto Castelvecchi, says he said an election has just been delayed. "The question is not if we go to elections, but when and how," he said.
The biggest surprise is that he was out-maneuvered by Giuseppe Conte, a relatively unknown lawyer who was plucked from obscurity to head the Lega-M5S government.
Outside of government another danger looms for Salvini. Milanese prosecutors probing allegations that the Lega party solicited covert Russian funding are likely to redouble their investigative efforts. Salvini shrugged off the accusations when they surfaced earlier this year, 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 Christian culture.
Other legal challenges could wound the Lega leader.
On Thursday Salvini was placed under investigation by prosecutors in Rome on suspicion of defaming Carola Rackete, the German captain of the NGO rescue ship Sea-Watch 3, who broke a naval blockade imposed by Salvini to land rescued migrants at Lampedusa. The inquiry follows a complaint filed by Rackete in July in which the ship's captain claimed Salvini defamed her and sought to stoke hatred against her.