Italy's Conte pitches new government before Parliament votes

The League's leader Matteo Salvini speaks during a demonstration with far-right party Brothers of Italy against the 5-Star and Democratic party coalition government while Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte was addressing Parliament at the Lower Chamber, in Rome, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. The lower Chamber of Deputies, where the government has a comfortable majority, is set to vote Monday evening. (Riccardo Antimiani/ANSA via AP)

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte is pitching his new left-leaning coalition to lawmakers before crucial confidence votes

ROME — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte pitched lawmakers for support Monday ahead of crucial confidence votes on his 4-day-old, left-tilting coalition government while fielding insults during a boisterous Parliament session from an opposition outraged that Italy got a new government instead of a new election.

Much of the daylong session in the lower Chamber of Deputies resembled a soccer stadium with frenzied fans more than a hall of lawmakers weighing whether to confirm Italy's second government of mismatched partners in 15 months.

Practically eclipsed in the raucous atmosphere was any debate over Conte's policy promises -- a government focused on economic growth and determined to keep Europe united.

"Buffoon," and "elections, elections" were some of the milder taunts shouted from the ranks of the opposition.

In the square outside the Chamber, Matteo Salvini, the right-wing, League party leader who brought down Conte's first government, rallied a few thousand right-wing and far-right voters and protested that citizens were clamoring for their say at the ballot box.

"Inside, there's the regime that knows it's about to fall and is acting like Marie Antoinette," Salvini said, sarcastically likening Conte's cobbled-together coalition to the tone-deaf attitude of the French queen.

Conte launched his own barbs at Salvini, who abruptly withdrew the League as a partner in the previous government in a bid for an early election that would make him premier.

"That every year a leader can think he can bring the country to elections is irresponsible," Conte said.

The premier forged a fresh coalition last week out of bitter rivals, mismatched coalition partners whose main attraction to each other appeared to be determination to keep Salvini and his anti-migrant League out of power.

Conte's first, all-populist and euroskeptic government collapsed when Salvini withdrew his League as a coalition partner. The firebrand League leader incorrectly bet that would trigger an early election to hand him the premiership and what he said would be "full powers" for his anti-migrant, euro-skeptic forces.

To Salvini's shock, Conte cobbled together an alternate coalition, again with the populist 5-Star Movement as senior partner but this time also with the center-left Democratic Party and a tiny left-wing party.

That gave Conte a fairly comfortable majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the first confidence vote was being held Monday night.

But the government's margin majority in the Senate is tight. The Senate confidence vote is set for Tuesday.

If Conte loses, he must resign.

Conte vowed that his new government would solidly support a strong, united Europe and focus on getting Italy's stubbornly stagnant economy growing again.

Buoyed by a League triumph in European Parliament elections this year, Salvini stiffened an already-tough government policy on illegal immigration, with a decree that harshly enforces a ban on charity migrant rescue boats from entering Italian ports.

Conte indicated that migrant policy will be tweaked, but gave no specifics.

One lawmaker from a tiny opposition party has expressed ambivalence about the new coalition, still containing populists. However, Riccardo Magi, from the More Europe party, announced his reluctant support, saying the risk of an "illiberal and anti-European drift" if Conte's government falls would be worse.

Salvini and his allies have been crying foul. They contend Italians, who rewarded him in opinion polls with soaring popularity, deserved to have early elections.

"Our voice counts. They have to respect the people's voice, we must vote," said Daniela De Licio, who turned out for the rally outside Parliament from the Rome suburb of Tivoli.

Wary of yearslong bad blood between Democrats and 5-Stars, Conte called for political forces to "put aside egoism and old rancor."

With the difficult task of slashing billions of euros from the 2020 state budget looming, Conte appealed to EU leaders for flexibility in spending rules.

Conte also insisted that EU nations take their share of asylum-seekers and refugees, who are fleeing poverty as well as persecution. Opinion polls show Italians favored the crackdowns on illegal immigration led by Salvini when he was interior minister.

Harsh EU fiscal rules, coupled with a perceived lack of EU solidarity as Italy struggled to serve huge numbers of migrants who headed to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, helped boost the popularity of Salvini's "Italians First" League.

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