Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte faces a vote of no confidence in Italy’s upper house on August 20 after Matteo Salvini pulled the plug on the ruling coalition made up of his own far-right League and the populist Five Star movement.
Mr Salvini’s popularity has soared since he came to power 14 months ago. Now he wants to seize the momentum, calling for snap elections in October — more than three years early — that could deliver him a majority and allow the League to govern with the anti-immigration, anti-LGBT Fratelli d’Italia, and if necessary Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia.
But a number of scenarios could play out to thwart Mr Salvini’s political manoeuvring.
What happens if the no-confidence motion is passed?
If the vote goes against Mr Conte, the figurehead prime minister chosen by Five Star and the League, President Sergio Mattarella will hold formal consultations to see if an alternative coalition made up of Five Star and another party can be formed.
If it proves impossible to cobble together a new coalition, Mr Mattarella could call on an institutional figure, such as Carlo Cottarelli, a former IMF economist, to establish a caretaker government. This technocratic administration would be of limited scope but could pass an autumn budget with the spending cuts needed to avoid a VAT rise and to keep Italy within EU rules.
The stopgap administration could also pass a law on the constitutional reform of parliament, which would cut the number of MPs by a third to 600 before calling elections in the middle of next year.
What are the chances of a new coalition without elections?
If a coalition between the centre-left Democratic Party and Five Star is plausible, Mr Mattarella could give a mandate to a figure such as Five Star’s Roberto Fico, the leader of the Lower House, to form a government. Five Star’s current leader, Luigi Di Maio, would not be eligible under the party’s rules which limit its politicians to two parliamentary terms.
The new coalition could in theory stay in office until 2023, possibly passing electoral reform that would return Italy to a system of straight proportional representation, a disadvantage for Mr Salvini who stands to benefit from the current system which awards bonus seats to coalitions that together take more than 40 per cent of the vote.
The Democratic Party — defeated in last year’s election — and Five Star voted together this week on the timing of the confidence vote, but are still considered a long way from forming an alliance.
If negotiations fail, elections could be held in late October or November in line with Mr Salvini’s wishes.
Mr Conte could plausibly stand as leader of Five Star. Seventy-one per cent of Five Star voters would choose Mr Conte as their prime ministerial candidate if Mr Di Maio were unable to stand, according to a poll this week.
As the interior ministry runs elections in Italy, Mr Mattarella would probably have to appoint a temporary caretaker government, led by an institutional figure such as Enrico Giovannini, a prominent statistician, to oversee the vote, given that Mr Salvini is the country’s current interior minister.
What would be the likely result of an autumn election?
Polls suggest an election could return a majority of more than 40 per cent for a far-right/centre-right alliance, including Mr Salvini’s League, Mr Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia and the far-right Fratelli d’Italia, which would give them bonus seats and a likely working majority in parliament. After the last elections in 2018 this grouping fell short of 40 per cent but the League has since doubled in support.
A Democratic Party-Five Star alliance is theoretically possible although less likely.
What if the confidence motion is rejected?
Five Star and opposition parties could vote together to ensure the no-confidence motion does not pass, leaving Mr Conte in place as prime minister. In that event Mr Salvini could still try to bring down the government by withdrawing his ministers.
Mr Conte could then either resign or ask for another confidence vote and replace the ministers depending on which parties were willing to support him. There are several precedents for this, including under seven-times prime minister Giulio Andreotti who adopted the measure to stay in power in 1990.
What do Salvini’s opponents want?
Five Star is not ready for an election as the party has seen a slump in its support since last year’s poll. Some voters believe Five Star has compromised on principle and policy, providing Mr Salvini with immunity from prosecution when it blocked proceedings in the Senate in connection with a migrant boat he refused to let dock and abandoning its pledge to stop a high speed rail line to France.
The party says it does not want elections before constitutional reform has been introduced.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is deeply divided. Former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has proposed establishing a caretaker government with Five Star, portraying himself as an alternative to Mr Salvini.
An election would suit Democratic party leader Nicola Zingaretti, allowing him to replace his party’s MPs, who mostly support Mr Renzi, with his own people. But in the event of early elections Mr Renzi could create a splinter group, splitting the party.