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Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte Resigns, Ending His Populist Coalition


Italy's prime minister Giuseppe Conte resigned today. That followed a scathing rebuke of his deputy prime minister, the far-right leader Matteo Salvini. Conte accused him of opportunism and of leaving Italy at risk financially and politically. The collapse of Conte's populist coalition ends Italy's 58th post-war government. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli joins us from Rome. Hi there, Sylvia.


POGGIOLI: So describe the scene today in Parliament when Conte announced he was going to resign.

POGGIOLI: Oh, it was extremely tense. As Conte delivered his blistering speech, the interior minister Matteo Salvini sat right next to him, rolling his eyes and shaking his head as Conte blamed Salvini of pulling the plug on the government for his own personal and political interests. This is how Conte described Salvini's actions.


GIUSEPPE CONTE: (Through interpreter) Serious institutional recklessness that showed disrespect for Parliament and liable to tip the country into a spiral of political uncertainty and financial instability.

POGGIOLI: Conte also accused the League leader of failing to answer accusations of suspected attempts by the League party to secure secret funds from Russia. But Salvini was very defiant. He insisted he would do everything he did all over again.


MATTEO SALVINI: (Through interpreter) The League ministers are not afraid. They are free. They answer only to the Italian people, not to Merkel or Macron. We are proud, free, sovereign, with an idea of the future of children, of the family, of children who have a mother and a father. Let's make that clear - a mother and a father.

KELLY: Sylvia, just to lay out how we got here, the Prime Minister Conte has led this coalition, which included Salvini's Eurosceptic anti-migrant party, the League party as we heard there. It included the Five Star Movement. This has been in place since elections last year. Was this coalition troubled from the get-go?

POGGIOLI: Well it was, you know, it was really an odd alliance. The Five Star Movement is pro-welfare and kind of very wary of any kind of modernism of technological change. And the League is very pro-business and very anti-immigrant. But, you know, Salvini dominated pretty much from the start. He passed security decrees that not only banned rescue ships from docking at Italian ports but also threatened those ships with huge fines if they enter Italian waters without authorization. Now these measures essentially violate international law and could be ruled anti-constitutional.

And on the economic front, the situation got much worse. Growth has dropped to close to zero. The government hasn't been able to slow youth unemployment. And the huge public debt has continued to grow. It's more than 130% of GDP. And Italy's isolation in Europe also grew. The European partners are dismayed by Salvini's antagonism and his pro-Russia stance. In fact, he's never hidden his admiration for Vladimir - Russian president Vladimir Putin. He once went so far as to say I feel more comfortable in Moscow than in any European capital.

KELLY: Well, in Italian politics, anything can happen. So briefly, Sylvia, let me ask you what you're watching for. What might happen next?

POGGIOLI: Well, now it's in the hands of the Italian president. He'll hold consultation of all the parties to see if there's possibly another viable governing majority. Otherwise, there'll be elections in October. There's talk of a possible coalition between the Five Star Movement and their arch-enemy, the Democratic Party. If that happens, it'll show that Salvini miscalculated and underestimated the other political parties' determination to stop him from becoming prime minister.

KELLY: Thank you. That's NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reporting there from Rome, and you heard her on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

(SOUNDBITE OF KISHI BASHI SONG, "CAN'T LET GO, JUNO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.