Updated Aug 20, 2019

Italy's prime minister resigns amid coalition chaos

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (R), flanked by Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Minister Matteo Salvini. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

This is a summer of crises for Europe, with a political collision in Italy landing in the midst of Brexit chaos while the continent's top economies flirt with recession.

Driving the news: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Tuesday that he would submit his resignation amid tensions between the 2 populist parties that comprise his government coalition: the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right League. He declared that the ruling coalition of 2 populist parties "ends here."

  • Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, Conte's former coalition partner, Italy’s interior minister and leader of the far-right League party, has been demanding fresh elections and could soon claim the prime minister’s office for himself.

Why it matters: Italy has seen 16 leaders take power in the last 30 years. If Salvini is the 17th, Italy's crisis could spread far beyond its borders.

How we got here:

  • The League and the anti-establishment 5 Star Movement were the big winners from Italy’s 2018 elections. They formed an uneasy ruling partnership, with Conte plucked as a compromise prime minister.
  • The parties almost immediately clashed with one another, and with the EU. Proposals from both would further inflate Italy’s massive public debt, provoking threats and pleas from Brussels.
  • Salvini made his move on Aug. 8, calling for the government to break apart. Polls suggest the fiercely anti-immigrant League and a right-wing ally could likely form a majority government. However, his far-right party is still facing questions over a campaign finance scandal involving Russian funds.

What to watch: Salvini may have miscalculated.

  • With Conte’s resignation, President Sergio Mattarella will now have to determine whether a stable government can be formed or fresh elections are needed. One possibility would see 5 Star and the center-left Democratic Party join together and expel the League from government.

The big picture: Italian politics are famously volatile, but the stakes here are high for Europe and for the global economy.

  • Salvini has floated an exit from the euro. Even short of that drastic step, the looming debt crisis is a greater source of concern even than Brexit for many in Brussels.

What they're saying:

  • Conte called Salvini "irresponsible" and said he didn't commit himself to "the government's good work" because "he was too focused on looking for an excuse to pull the plug on it."
  • Salvini said he would do everything over again: "I am a free man. I am not afraid of the judgment of Italians."
  • Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister, called for a government of national unity: "Populism has failed in this country."

The bottom line: Conte has lasted 14 months as prime minister. That’s not a particularly short tenure by Italian standards.

Go deeper

Italian parties agree to new coalition without far-right Salvini

Matteo Salvini. Photo: Marco Cantile/LightRocket via Getty Images

Italy's center-left Democratic Party and populist Five Star Movement said Wednesday they have agreed to form a coalition government, staving off new elections that appeared likely after the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte earlier this month, the BBC reports.

Why it matters: Matteo Salvini, the leader of the far-right League party and perhaps the most popular politician in Italy, withdrew his support on Aug. 8 from the unlikely coalition he had formed with Five Star after the 2018 election. Salvini hoped fresh elections might allow him to become prime minister. Instead, his gamble has expelled his party out of power. Conte has agreed to stay on as prime minister of the new coalition, per BBC.

Go deeper: Italy's history of political instability

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Disruption takes over the G7

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump has generally been outnumbered at summits like the G7 — the disrupter-in-chief in a room of more sober-minded leaders. This time around, disruption is the rule. 

Why it matters: French President Emmanuel Macron, who's hosting the summit this weekend in the seaside town of Biarritz, warned ahead of the gathering that twin threats to democracy and capitalism must be vanquished in order to ensure a free and prosperous future. For this weekend, though, he’d probably settle for anything short of disaster.

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Political instability is nothing new for Italy

Data: Gleditsc and Chiozza, 2016, "Archigos — A Data Set on Leaders 1875–2015", Axios research; Chart: Chris Canipe/Axios

Italy is used to changes at the top, so the resignation this week of Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte won't have come as a massive shock.

The big picture: Italy has shuffled through 17 prime ministers over the last 30 years, second only to Japan among G7 countries. With only 3 chancellors since 1982, Germany is on the other end of the spectrum — though Angela Merkel is expected to step aside by 2021.

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