Interior Minister Salvini’s anti-migrant League had sought the vote after he pulled the plug on the coalition last week. But a majority of senators from former coalition partners Five Star Movement (M5S) and from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) opposition rejected the motion.
Instead, lawmakers approved an M5S-PD motion calling for a debate next week during which Conte would address the Senate on the crisis.
Senators were recalled at the height of the holiday season after groupings in the chamber on Monday failed to agree on a timetable for the vote demanded by Salvini.
Salvini kicked off Tuesday’s debate with a stunning U-turn, offering to back a key parliamentary reform of the M5S which last week he said he could no longer work with.
In exchange, the anti-establishment M5S would back his call for swift elections despite Salvini’s anti-immigration League party withdrawing from the increasingly acrimonious alliance.
While the government is still in place, the Senate decides whether to initiate a no-confidence vote in the 14-month-old administration of Conte, an independent agreed to by deputy prime ministers Salvini and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio last year.
After little support emerged for his call for a no-confidence motion in the Senate, Salvini on Tuesday offered to support the M5S’s reform that would slash the number of lawmakers from 950 to 605.
“Let’s vote the cut of 345 parliamentarians and then let’s hold an election immediately,” Salvini announced during the noisy Senate session.
The M5S, PD and other parties have been holding talks on a transitional government to pass the parliamentary reform and next year’s budget to avoid an automatic rise in VAT which would hit the least well-off the hardest.
Salvini had wanted a vote on Conte as early as Wednesday and for elections to follow in October to capitalise on opinion polls suggesting the League could garner 36-38 percent of votes.
Populist leader Salvini effectively ended the ruling alliance on Thursday, saying afterwards he had had enough of working with the M5S and what he said was its refusal to collaborate on key issues.
The two parties have seen a stunning reversal of fortunes since forming a government after the M5S won more than 32 percent of votes and the League 17 percent in 2018.
The social media-loving Salvini has been burnishing his “man of the people” image through a series of beach selfies in swimming trunks in recent days, seeking to build on the League’s strong showing in May’s European Parliament elections when the party won 34 percent of the vote, twice that of the M5S.
Potential new alliances
Matteo Renzi, who was PD premier from 2014-16, warned on Tuesday that snap elections would be a disaster and plunge Italy into recession, also promising to unite his supporters with those of PD secretary Zingaretti.
“The secretariat of my party has asked that there be unity… I believe that they are understandable requests and absolutely to be accepted,” he said.
“Lawmakers must today say that Salvini is in the minority,” Renzi said shortly before the debate, suggesting that even League leaders were surprised at how the crisis has unfolded negatively for them.
“We have the chance to turn the page,” Renzi said, extending a hand to the M5S for a new coalition.
Both the PD and M5S are divided on whether to form an improvised alliance with each other, something the PD refused to do after last May’s elections, prompting the unwieldy M5S-League alliance.
Di Maio on Monday said “no one wants to sit at the table with Renzi.”
Salvini is also seeking allies, both in the Senate and for possible elections, in the form of former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy of Giorgia Meloni.
While those two parties might each win six to eight percent of votes in an election, they will not be able to provide enough support in the Senate.
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