Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has called for swift elections after pulling support from the coalition government, plunging the country into turmoil

Rome (AFP) - A rowdy Italian Senate on Tuesday rejected a call by far-right leader Matteo Salvini for a swift no-confidence vote, deciding instead that Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte would address the crisis on August 20.

Interior Minister Salvini’s anti-migration League had sought the vote after he pulled the plug on the coalition last week. But a majority of senators from former coalition partners Five Star Movement (M5S) and from the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) opposition rejected the motion.

Instead, lawmakers approved an M5S-PD motion calling for a debate next week during which Conte would address the Senate.

Senators were recalled at the height of the holiday season after political groups on Monday failed to agree on a timetable for the vote demanded by Salvini.

He kicked off Tuesday’s debate with a stunning U-turn, offering to back a key parliamentary reform of the M5S, after saying last week that he could no longer work with them.

In exchange, the anti-establishment M5S was supposed to back his call for swift elections despite the League’s withdrawal from the increasingly acrimonious alliance.

In happier times: (from left) M5S leader Luigi Di Maio, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and League leader Matteo Salvini

While the government is still in place, the Senate decides whether to initiate a no-confidence vote in the 14-month-old administration of Conte, an independent approved by deputy prime ministers Salvini and M5S leader Luigi Di Maio last year.

After little support emerged for Salvini’s call for a no-confidence motion in the Senate, he offered Tuesday to support the M5S reform that would slash the number of lawmakers from 950 to 605.

“Let’s vote the cut of 345 parliamentarians and then let’s hold an election immediately,” Salvini suggested during the noisy Senate session.

Di Maio, who is not a senator, welcomed Salvini’s offer to back the M5S reform, but said it was up to President Sergio Mattarella to decide on elections.

“The country has been waiting for years. Next week we cut 345 parliamentarians,” Di Maio said on Facebook.

“I am still seriously worried about millions of Italian families and the risk of an increase in VAT.”

The M5S, PD and other parties have been holding talks on a transitional government to pass the parliamentary reform and next year’s budget to avoid an automatic rise in value-added tax that would hit the least well-off the hardest.

The League and M5S have seen a severe reversal of fortunes since forming a government last year

Di Maio also took a swipe at Salvini, noting that he had referred to his former political partner as a “friend” during the Senate debate.

“Friendship is a serious thing, it is a fundamental value in life, extraordinary. And above all, true friends are always loyal,” Di Maio said.

Salvini had wanted a vote on Conte as early as Wednesday and for elections to follow in October to capitalise on opinion polls suggesting the League could garner 36-38 percent of votes.

The two parties have seen a severe reversal of fortunes since forming a government after the M5S won more than 32 percent of votes and the League 17 percent in 2018.

In May’s European Parliament elections, the League won 34 percent of the vote, twice that of the M5S.

- Potential new alliances -

Matteo Renzi, who was PD premier from 2014-16, warned Tuesday that snap elections would be a disaster and plunge Italy into recession.

“Lawmakers must say today that Salvini is in the minority,” Renzi said shortly before the debate, suggesting that even League leaders were surprised at how badly the crisis has unfolded for them.

The social media-loving Salvini has been burnishing his "man of the people" image through a series of beach selfies in swimming trunks in recent days

“We have the chance to turn the page,” Renzi said, extending a hand to the M5S for a new coalition.

Both the PD and M5S are divided on whether to form an improvised alliance, something the PD refused to do after May’s elections, prompting the unwieldy M5S-League coalition.

Salvini is also seeking allies, both in the Senate and for possible elections, from former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the post-fascist Brothers of Italy of Giorgia Meloni.

Those parties could not provide the support Salvini needs in the Senate, however.