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Salvini's breakdown

By Gavin Jones and Giselda Vagnoni

At a closed-door meeting on Aug. 6, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s advisers told the populist politician that he was trapped in an unproductive coalition government and should bring it down.

The next day, Salvini told Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he was pulling his League Party out of its ruling alliance with the Five Star Movement (M5S), hoping to trigger an election that would return him to power as the unquestioned leader of a new government.

The League’s euroskeptic leader, riding high in the opinion polls thanks to his hard line on immigration, had just made a major miscalculation.

According to five sources, including League economic chief Claudio Borghi, Salvini’s plan rested on the two beliefs that Conte would promptly resign, and that the M5S and the opposition Democratic Party would be unable to bury their deep-rooted mutual enmity to join forces against him.

Salvini was wrong on both counts.

Italy’s once-dominant politician, known as “The Captain” by his followers, is on the verge of opposition wilderness, a mere spectator as the M5S and the center-left Democratic Party form a government without him.

A master at galvanizing the masses with his fiery rhetoric and social media savvy, Salvini’s dramatic reversal of fortune shows that he lacked a similar mastery of the political cut-and-thrust in the corridors of power in Rome.

Despite this summer’s chastening experience, Salvini is still a potent political force and could be back — especially if a new M5S/ Democratic Party government proves short-lived.

Borghi said that Salvini resisted internal party pressure to trigger elections, including from Borghi himself, but eventually relented at the meeting last month.

“Lots of us were telling him he had to bring down the government, even though we know there were risks,” said Borghi, who attended the Aug. 6 gathering.

BAD ADVICE

Salvini’s plot to ditch the M5S and win power alone after months of bickering over economic policies and relations with the EU, started to go wrong from the start when Conte declined to relinquish power.

That was not what Salvini had expected.

A senior League source said that Salvini’s low-profile No. 2, Giancarlo Giorgetti, a kingmaker who does much of the party’s back-room power broking, had assured him that Conte would go.

Instead, Conte, a law professor plucked from obscurity to lead the coalition government, showed that he had no intention of returning to academia. Rather than resign, he demanded to know why Salvini wanted to bring down the government and called for a transparent parliamentary debate.

With the Italian parliament on their summer recess, lawmakers first had to be summoned from their holidays — giving them time to come up with a plan to thwart Salvini’s ambitions.

“To bring down the government, he should have withdrawn the League’s ministers from the Cabinet rather than just asking Conte to resign,” said former Italian minister of the interior Roberto Maroni, who preceded Salvini as League leader. “He gave his adversaries time to negotiate and create a new government.”

With Conte sitting tight, the League filed a no-confidence motion in its own government, hoping to topple it as soon as parliament reconvened on Aug. 12.

However, the M5S and many Democratic Party lawmakers were furious about Salvini’s maneuvering and returned determined to check his sprint toward a snap election.