Italy’s Populist Parties, on Precipice of Power, Fail to Form Government

Italy’s prime minister-designate, Giuseppe Conte, center, leaving a meeting with Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, on Sunday in Rome.

ROME — Italy’s populists seethed and the European Union sighed with temporary relief on Sunday night after an anti-establishment alliance poised to govern the bloc’s fourth-largest economy imploded at the last minute amid concerns that it was planning to sneak out the back door of the eurozone.

Less than a week after Italy’s populist parties, the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigrant League, ironed out their policy differences and jubilantly received a mandate to form a government that they said would usher in a new era in Italian and European history, its designated prime minister announced on Sunday evening that he had failed to form a government.

“I assure you that I gave my maximum effort and attention to carry out this task,” said Giuseppe Conte, a previously little-known lawyer. His selection as prime minister-designate had raised concerns he would be a pawn of the populist forces that had settled on him as their compromise nominee.

The announcement, a result of an impasse over the future government’s economics minister, seemed likely to prompt the creation of a technical caretaker government on Monday morning. But it was unclear that such a government would have enough support to pass a confidence vote in Parliament, thus thrusting Italy back into political uncertainty.

Nearly three months after the majority of Italians voted for populist parties, the aggrieved forces demanded a return to the polls, with the League’s leader doubting Italy’s democracy and the Five Star leader raising the prospect of the impeachment of President Sergio Mattarella.

But Mr. Mattarella, a soft-spoken keeper of Italian institutions, explained in a civics lesson to Italians Sunday night that he was only carrying out his constitutional obligations to confirm a stable government that protected Italian interests.

Speaking from his Quirinal Palace, Mr. Mattarella, who is imbued by Italy’s Constitution with great powers during a government transition period, pointed out that Italy was one of the founding members of the European Union. Its membership in the common euro currency, Mr. Mattarella said, was “a fundamentally important choice for the prospects of our country and our young people: If one wants to discuss it, it must be done openly.”

In other words, if both parties had campaigned on leaving the eurozone, that would be one thing. But both had been vague on the subject, especially the Five Star Movement, which backed off talk of leaving the zone in the campaign. It was thus unacceptable, Mr. Mattarella argued, for the parties to install an economics minister hostile to the euro as a way out of the eurozone.

“I do not say what I am saying with a light heart,” Mr. Mattarella said. “Because I did all I could so that a political government could be formed.”

He said he gave the parties extra time, and gave Mr. Conte the mandate as prime minister, “overcoming any perplexity on the fact that a political government was to be led by a president who was not elected in Parliament.”

The president said that he had gone out of his way to accommodate the parties’ choices but that his constitutional role of guarantor had required him to oppose their choice of an economics minister who followed a line “that probably, or even inevitably, would lead Italy to exit the euro.”

While Mr. Mattarella did not say the name of the populist alliance’s choice, he is Paolo Savona, an 82-year-old economist who has lamented Italy’s joining the euro. Mr. Mattarella said that such a pick would alarm Italian and foreign investors and that the already sharp increases in the spread between German and Italian bond yields “increases our public debt and reduces the possibilities of the state to invest.”

He said he could not allow stock market losses to torch the savings of Italian companies and families or make it harder for Italians to borrow money.

“It is my duty, in fulfilling the duty of nominating ministers, which the Constitution entrusts to me, to be careful to safeguard the savings of Italians,” he said. “In this way Italian sovereignty is concretely reaffirmed.”

But Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, argued exactly the opposite on Sunday night.

Saying he was as angry as “a beast,” he offered a preview of what is likely to be a long and vicious campaign attacking foreign interests, Italian institutions and Mr. Mattarella himself.

“Does this seem like democracy to you?” he said to reporters. He blamed bankers, Brussels, German politicians in Berlin and “the big powers” for blocking the formation of a government and asserted that “Italians would not be anyone’s slave.”

Mr. Salvini said that he had expected, as of Monday, to be Italy’s interior minister, responsible for security and migration, and had been thinking, “I can’t wait to send home a whole lot of illegals.” Instead, he said, the powers-that-be didn’t like his choice for economics minister so they pulled the plug.

But Mr. Salvini, a gifted politician, stands to gain the most from new elections. His support has increased throughout the long negotiating process. If Mr. Savona was a poison pill that Mr. Mattarella would never accept, his nomination essentially forced new elections that could send Mr. Salvini back to government as the prime minister of a broad center-right coalition with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

That would leave the Five Star Movement out of the picture. On Sunday night, the party’s political leader, Luigi Di Maio, seemed genuinely apoplectic. After an emergency meeting with his party leaders, he called on Italian television for Mr. Mattarella’s impeachment for blocking the will of the people.

It is not clear if Five Star, an ideologically vague party that won more than 30 percent of the electorate, has alienated left-leaning voters upset about its alliance with the hard-right League.

What is clear is that the outrage machine of Five Star, a protest party born online, kicked into high gear Sunday. In response, government officials expressed solidarity for Mr. Mattarella.

“Keep calm and solidarity with President Mattarella,” Paolo Gentiloni, who remains Italy’s prime minister, posted on Twitter. “Now we must save our great country.”

On Monday, Mr. Mattarella is expected to meet at the Quirinal Palace with Carlo Cottarelli, a former director of the fiscal affairs department of the International Monetary Fund, to ask him to form a technical government.

Mr. Cottarelli, who has also worked for the Bank of Italy and for the country’s major energy company, ENI, is a preferred choice of Mr. Berlusconi.

Mr. Cottarelli recently answered a question on Bloomberg television about whether he would be prime minister by saying, “I don’t think there is any possibility.”

There is now a good possibility. But in this unpredictable, dramatic and seemingly unending Italian electoral season, nothing is certain.

“Good luck to Cottarelli?” Mr. Conte told the Italian news wire ANSA as he walked out of a meeting with the Five Star Movement. “Good luck to anyone. And especially Italy.”

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