March 26, 2018 / 2:11 PM / 9 months ago

Italy's League leader says ready for coalition talks with 5-Star

ROME (Reuters) - The head of Italy’s far-right League said on Monday he was ready to talk to the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement about forming a government after the two sides joined forces to elect parliamentary speakers at the weekend.

FILE PHOTO: Northern League leader and senator Matteo Salvini casts his vote at the Senate during the first session since the March 4 national election in Rome, Italy March 23, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

Saturday’s vote, which saw a 5-Star politician take charge of the lower chamber while a center-right veteran became head of the upper house Senate, raised speculation the two blocs might move on and try to forge a coalition.

Such a prospect looked near impossible a month ago, with the League and its conservative allies deeply opposed to the 5-Star both in terms of policies and personalities.

However, after a March 4 national election ended in a hung parliament, Italy’s disparate parties are considering various options to overcome the impasse as President Sergio Mattarella prepares to start formal negotiations next week.

“We need to sit around a table with everyone, and certainly also with 5-Star,” League leader Matteo Salvini told Il Messaggero newspaper in an interview.

In an interview with Telelombardia, Salvini said he would put forward 10 priorities for the next government, including reforming the justice system, curbing immigration and dumping a recent pension reform that had pushed back retirement ages.

He made no mention of introducing a flat tax - a campaign pledge that would cost billions of euros to implement and is seen as incompatible with an expensive, flagship 5-Star proposal to instigate a “citizens’ wage” to help the poor and jobless.

Luigi Di Maio, leader of the 5-Star, laid out his own policy priorities on Sunday, highlighting the need to undo the recent pension changes and reduce youth unemployment. He made no reference to the citizens’ wage.

BETRAYAL

Sending another mollifying signal, Salvini said he was ready to drop his claim to be the next prime minister, even though the League emerged as the largest party within the conservative alliance, which in turn is now the largest bloc in parliament.

“It is not ‘Salvini or death’,” he told Telelombardia.

The 5-Star and League have enough seats to govern alone - a prospect that has worried financial markets because of their shared hostility to European Union budget restraints and their big campaign spending pledges.

However, Salvini has always pledged not to abandon his rightist allies, including former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party unexpectedly trailed the League in this month’s vote, leaving him to play second fiddle.

Berlusconi last week accused Salvini of betraying him in the vote for the speakers. Although the two subsequently made peace, Forza Italia veterans are afraid the League might ditch them and join the 5-Star in a coalition with a limited, but popular program that would prepare the way for swift, new elections.

A poll last week showed support for Forza Italia crumbling as center-right voters jumped on the League band wagon.

FILE PHOTO: Five Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio applauds the new Chamber of Deputies president Roberto Fico during the second session of parliament since the March 4 national election in Rome, Italy March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Tony Gentile/File Photo

“Berlusconi is tired, angry and worried,” said a senior Forza Italia politician, who declined to be named.

In an interview with the daily Corriere della Sera on Monday, the 81-year-old Berlusconi said Salvini needed his allies to govern, adding that a 5-Star/League government would be a “hircocervus” - a half-goat, half-stag mythical creature.

“(It was) often mentioned by ancient philosophers as an example of absurdity because it is made up of opposed and irreconcilable characters,” he said.

Additional reporting by Giselda Vagnoni; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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