ROME, Aug 21 (Reuters) - Italy is struggling to form its 67th government since World War Two. The fate of its latest political crisis will be determined by five politicians and a comedian, an eclectic group riven by personality clashes as well as deep political differences.
Nicknamed “the captain” by his followers, the head of the hard-right League party was considered the dominant figure in Italian politics until he suddenly decided to try to bring down the popular coalition government earlier this month.
Salvini, a tough-talking “man-of-the-people,” was confident of triggering early elections to cash in on his surging popularity, but the move risks backfiring as other parties are now trying to form a new coalition to sideline him.
Salvini is often accused by critics of being a bully or even a “fascist,” but he himself was pummelled in parliament on Tuesday by his mild-mannered prime minister, who blamed him for putting personal ambition ahead of the country.
An unheralded lawyer plucked from obscurity 14-months ago to lead the unlikely coalition of the League and the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, the outgoing premier has risen in stature to become the country’s most popular politician, according to opinion polls.
A smart dresser with a penchant for waistcoats, cufflinks and a white handkerchief poking out of his breast pocket, Italians have warmed to his soft-spoken, professorial tones.
On Tuesday he became the hero of the Italians that cannot stand Salvini (and resented by those who love him), as he calmly savaged his interior minister in parliament before heading to the president to resign. He could be back at the helm of a new government, but risks being vetoed by parties who see him as too close to 5-Star and feel threatened by his growing popularity.
The man who holds all the cards, the 78-year-old, poker-face president will consult all the parties to see if a new coalition can be formed, probably around 5-Star and the opposition Democratic Party (PD). If not, he will dissolve parliament 3-1/2 years ahead of schedule to allow for autumn elections.
Known for his reserved personality, Mattarella hails from the now-defunct Christian Democrat party which mastered the art of political compromise for 50 years after World War Two.
His brother was governor of Sicily when he was killed by the mafia in 1980. Mattarella dragged his brother’s body from the car he was shot in.
The 71-year-old comedian founded the 5-Star Movement in 2009 and propelled it to success with his high-octane, hoarse-voiced rants in squares all over Italy. After withdrawing from the limelight ahead of last year’s election, Grillo has returned to try to save his creation from destruction by Salvini.
He remains behind the scenes, communicating with followers only through cryptic blog posts, but is once again setting 5-Star’s strategy and is considered the main proponent of its moves to hitch up with the once-reviled PD.
Elected leader of the centre-left PD in March, Zingaretti has struggled to make a mark and many still jokingly refer to him as the brother of Luca, the actor who played police chief Salvo Montalbano in the internationally acclaimed television series.
However, the governor of the Lazio region has a key role in the crisis because he can make or break a deal with 5-Star, so long as he can carry his divided party with him.
The 33-year-old 5-Star leader and deputy prime minister has been eclipsed by Salvini during the government with the League, with opinion polls indicating his party’s support has halved from the 33% it won at last year’s election.
He may now be able to wriggle out of the suffocating coalition without risking a new election, if he can join forces with the PD, but the many policy differences between the traditional foes mean it won’t be easy.
Moreover, Zingaretti could demand Di Maio’s head as the price for any deal, citing the fierce attacks he often levelled at the PD and his former close personal ties with Salvini.
The government crisis has given the former prime minister and PD leader a way back from the political wilderness he drifted into after resigning as premier in 2016.
After scuppering a possible deal with 5-Star following last year’s inconclusive elections he is now the most vocal supporter of a tie-up in the name of saving the country from Salvini.
Renzi now has little popular support but still has many followers among PD lawmakers, and critics say his real motive is to avoid elections at which they would no longer be candidates.
Zingaretti also mistrusts his predecessor, who is famous for assuring former PD prime minister Enrico Letta of his loyalty in 2014 just weeks before ousting him in an internal PD coup.
Reporting by Gavin Jones