Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte shakes hands with Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio after addressing parliament ahead of confidence vote later at the Lower Chamber in Rome, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. The 5-Stars-PD alliance was the unexpected result of Italy's mid-summer crisis, which began when the League's Matteo Salvini, then the powerful interior minister and deputy premier, pulled the plug on the coalition hoping to trigger snap elections and win the premiership.(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Italy's Conte pitches new government before Parliament votes

September 09, 2019 - 9:23 am

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte pitched his new left-leaning coalition to lawmakers Monday ahead of crucial confidence votes, while the right-wing leader who brought down the last government protested at a rally outside Parliament that citizens wanted their say at the ballot box.

The lower Chamber of Deputies, where Conte's second government has a fairly comfortable majority, was set to vote Monday evening. Fortunes for the coalition - the populist 5-Star Movement, the center-left Democratic Party and a tiny left-wing party - are dicier in the Senate, which is set to vote Tuesday.

Conte's first, all-populist government collapsed after 14 months when Interior Minister Matteo Salvini withdrew his anti-migrant League as a coalition partner. The firebrand League leader bet the move would trigger an early election to him the premiership.

But the 5-Stars and Democrats set aside bitter rivalry to forge an alternative coalition, foiling Salvini and his far-right allies in their immediate quest for an election.

Conte vowed his new government would be long-lasting and focused on getting Italy's stubbornly stagnant economy growing again.

His coalition will pursue "a broad-ranging reformist agenda and for a long period, to make the best energies of Italy grow and to help relaunch sustainable growth, employment and social cohesion" in Europe," the premier told lawmakers Monday.

While he spoke, boos and catcalls rose from the ranks of opposition lawmakers, as well as from protesters in the square outside the Chamber's headquarters.

"Inside, there's a regime that know that it's about to fall," Salvini, still hopeful of getting an early election, told the rally crowd.

The Democrats and the 5-Stars were political enemies until last month, and Conte will have to work to get his two main coalition partners to stick together. He called for political forces to "put aside egoism and old rancor."

Any defections by lawmakers uneasy with the new alliance could cost Conte victory in the confidence votes, especially in the Senate, where his majority comes down to a handful of senators. If he loses, he must resign as premier.

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

Conte also insisted that EU nations take more of the 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 under the previous government.

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 Salvini's popularity when he was interior minister in Conte's first government.

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

Conte indicated that policy will be tweaked, without giving details.

Salvini was defiant. "We'll close the ports, all together, because in Italy you don't get in without permission."

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