Italy parties meet, but obstacles to government deal abound

By Gavin Jones
Italian police officers ride horses in front of the Senate prior the opening of the second session day since the March 4 national election in Rome, Italy March 24, 2018. REUTERS/Remo Casilli

By Gavin Jones

ROME (Reuters) - Italy's political parties met on Thursday to try to find common ground on forming a government in the wake of this month's inconclusive election, ahead of formal consultations with the president next week.

The anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, which won most votes at the March 4 election, organized meetings in parliament with the far-right League, its more moderate ally Forza Italia (Go Italy!) and the left-wing Free and Equal party.

The 5-Star's Senate leader Danilo Toninelli said the talks had been "constructive" and had focused on policies that could win broad support in parliament, such as measures to combat poverty, rather than on government posts.

Forza Italia's representative Anna Maria Bernini also said the meeting had been "useful", but beyond the cautiously positive tones there are major obstacles in the way of forming a ruling coalition.

The 5-Star and the League each claim the right to name the prime minister and lead a government -- the former as the largest single party and the latter as the leading party in a conservative coalition that won most parliamentary seats.

After their leaders, 5-Star's Luigi Di Maio and the League's Matteo Salvini, joined forces to elect the speakers of the two houses of parliament last week many commentators saw the deal as paving the way to a 5-Star/League government.

However this solution, which would alarm Brussels and investors because of both parties' hostility to EU budget rules, now looks threatened by mutual vetoes.

INTRANSIGENCE

The first involves the leadership: Salvini said this week it is not vital that he should be prime minister, but Di Maio is less flexible. He said on Tuesday that it was the "people's will" that he should get the job because 5-Star, with 33 percent of the vote, got twice the support of the League, on 17 percent.

Salvini criticized Di Maio's intransigence and has said the prime minister should come from the center-right.

Another stumbling block is the role of Forza Italia and its leader, four-times prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

5-Star, which bases its appeal on a vow to clean up politics, is fiercely hostile to Berlusconi, who has a conviction for tax fraud and is on trial in another case for allegedly bribing witnesses.

Di Maio refuses to meet Berlusconi and some 5-Star lawmakers have said they would find it unacceptable to be in government alongside ministers from Forza Italia. However, Salvini says he will not abandon his coalition partners to form a government just alongside 5-Star.

Salvini acknowledged the difficulties in an interview with daily Corriere della Sera on Wednesday, saying he saw a 50 percent chance that no deal would be found and that fresh elections would need to be called within the next few months.

President Sergio Mattarella will try to resolve this impasse in talks with the various parliamentary parties on April 4 and 5, his office said on Thursday.

He will see the rightist parties individually, rather than as a single group. If no obvious solution is found, he is likely to hold a second round of consultations later in the month and it might take many weeks before any firm decisions are made.

(Editing by Richard Balmforth and Crispian Balmer)