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Italy president seeks help from lower house speaker in bid to revive coalition

ROME (Reuters) - Italian President Sergio Mattarella, looking to overcome a political crisis that has brought down the government in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, said on Friday he believed the collapsed coalition could still be revived.

League party leader Matteo Salvini speaks during a news conference at the Quirinale Palace in Rome, Italy January 29, 2021. Francesco Ammendola/Italian Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS

Following three days of talks with party leaders, Mattarella asked lower house speaker Roberto Fico to mediate between the estranged parties, telling him to report back on Tuesday.

“It is necessary to set up a government as soon as possible,” Mattarella told reporters, saying Italy was being severely tested by a health, economic and social emergency.

The crisis was triggered this month when former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his tiny Italia Viva party from the coalition, depriving it of a majority in the upper house Senate and forcing Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign.

Renzi, whose party has barely 2% of voter support, clashed repeatedly with Conte over his handling of COVID-19 and the recession, and in particular his plans for spending more than 200 billion euros ($243 billion) from a European Union fund to help Italy’s virus-battered economy.

He accused the prime minister of lacking strategic vision, saying he risked squandering the EU bonanza on handouts rather than long-term investments.

Conte has tried to lure unaligned and opposition senators into the government ranks to replace Italia Viva, but has had little apparent success, meaning that if he wants to stay in office, he will almost certainly need Renzi’s help.

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5-STAR RUCTIONS

Conte has no party affiliation but is close to the largest coalition group - the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement. It had said it wanted nothing more to do with Renzi, but in a U-turn, the 5-Star leader offered to try and mend broken ties.

“We expressed our willingness to ... (create) a political government that takes as its starting point the coalition forces that have worked together over the past year and a half,” 5-Star’s Vito Crimi said on Friday after seeing the head of state.

However, he also insisted that Conte had to stay on as prime minister - something Renzi has so far refused to endorse.

The decision to offer Renzi an olive branch went down badly with hardline 5-Star members, who have heaped abuse on the former premier over the past two weeks.

“I see that the (5-Star) position has changed. I have not changed my position,” said one of the movement’s leading lights, Alessandro Di Battista. “If the movement goes back to its old position, I’m in. Otherwise, it is goodbye and thank you.”

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Di Battista is not in parliament and it was not immediately clear how many lawmakers might follow him out the party if Crimi goes ahead and forges a new alliance with Renzi.

The other main ruling group, the centre-left Democratic Party, is also backing Conte to get a fresh mandate but the prospect is far from certain unless Renzi and he both agree to patch up their policy differences and mutual recriminations.

Earlier in the day, the rightist opposition alliance led by Matteo Salvini’s League, which leads in opinion polls, told Mattarella it wanted snap elections two years ahead of schedule.

When Mattarella hears back from Fico, who is a 5-Star politician, the president could ask a new candidate with more parliamentary backing than Conte to try to form a government, or meet Salvini’s request for a vote.

Most analysts believe he will only do this as a last resort.

($1 = 0.8245 euros)

Reporting by Angelo Amante, writing by Gavin Jones, editing by Crispian Balmer and Pravin Char

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