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Surprising the Italian government, the country’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (at right), resigned his position and launched a scathing attack on the its Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, pictured at left.

A Government in Limbo

In a shocking political move, Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte handed in his resignation on Tuesday, August 20, averting a no-confidence vote tabled by the League party’s leader Matteo Salvini. In an hour-long speech at the Italian Senate on Tuesday afternoon, Conte launched a scathing attack on Salvini, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister, who is vying for the position as Prime Minister.

Earlier this month, Salvini pushed for new elections, saying that the government coalition between the hardline anti-immigrant League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement no longer holds a majority in parliament. For his part, Conte said Salvini’s demand for fresh elections, 18 months after the last ones were held, was “irresponsible” and accused him of putting the national interest at risk in order to advance his own personal interests.

“With a political crisis in mid-August, elections will probably be held in autumn and then this would mean a provisional government and will make us weak with our EU partners,” Conte said.

Conte slammed Salvini, who was sitting next to him throughout his speech, for what he described as a lack of statesmanship and said his decision could bring about institutional and financial uncertainty. Conte listened to the rest of the Senate debate before submitting his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, potentially setting Italy off on a path towards the new elections Salvini has called for.

The move left the EU’s third largest economy in a political vacuum until President Mattarella decides whether to form a new coalition, or call for an election. The next step is for the President to hold official meetings with the speakers of the Senate and the representatives of the country’s other political parties.

Deputy Prime Minister Salvini took the microphone immediately after Conte finished his speech in the Senate, saying that he would “do what I did all over again,” adding “I am a free man. I am not afraid of the judgment of Italians,” stating he wants a “future of growth and prosperity.”

Salvini also defended his policies on Europe and immigration, which caused the coalition to fall apart, emphatically stating “are we or are we not a sovereign country, free to protect its borders, its beaches!”

At one point during his speech, Salvini took out a rosary and asked the Virgin Mary for protection for Italians. Conte has previously criticized Salvini’s habit of showing the rosary during public speeches and rallies.

Giuseppe Conte, a law professor with no previous political experience, became prime minister in June 2018, after the League and Five Star Movement reached a coalition agreement. The two parties secured the most votes in the March 2018 election, but the coalition fell apart this month over disagreements on key policies. Those disputes reached a fever pitch last week, as the two parties engaged in a bitter political standoff over a migrant ship that has been stranded off Italy for 19 days. Salvini refused to allow the ship, the Open Arms to dock, despite a court ruling that said the boat should be allowed to come ashore. Conte, on the other hand, demanded that Salvini “urgently adopt the necessary measures to ensure assistance and protection for minors present in the boat.”

Salvini then allowed 27 minors to disembark the ship, but insisted that the decision was “exclusively” Conte’s responsibility.

Earlier in August, tensions between the two parties rose after a split vote over the planned high-speed rail link between Turin in Italy and Lyon in France, a project that the League favored. The turmoil comes at a difficult time as Italy’s parliament must approve and present its draft budget to European Union leaders in Brussels by mid-October. Politicians are also working to finalize reforms proposed by the Five Star Movement which would slash the country’s parliament by more than 300 seats.

According to opinion polls, the League might form a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Monday’s rift may also lead to an alternative coalition between the Five Star movement and the center-left opposition Democratic Party. Alternatively, the Five Star movement could reunite with the League for another coalition, under a different prime minister. While there is bad blood between the two parties, M5S is currently languishing in the polls and the last thing that it wants at this time is an early election. What is clear is that this complicated issue will continue to unfold during the upcoming months.