Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte sits as he attends the parliament debate ahead of confidence vote later at the Lower Chamber in Rome, Monday, Sept. 9, 2019. Conte is pitching for support in Parliament for his new left-leaning coalition ahead of crucial confidence votes. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Italy's Conte pitches new government before Parliament votes

September 09, 2019 - 12:01 pm

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte made pro-Europe, pro-growth promises to lawmakers Monday before crucial confidence votes on his new left-tilting coalition.

Meanwhile, Matteo Salvini, the right-wing, nationalist leader who brought down Conte's first government, protested outside Parliament that citizens were clamoring for their say at the ballot box.

Conte forged a coalition last week out of bitter rivals, mismatched coalition partners whose main attraction to each other appeared to be determination to keep Salvini and his anti-migrant League out of power.

Conte's first, all-populist and euroskeptic government collapsed after 14 months when Salvini withdrew his League as a coalition partner. The firebrand League leader incorrectly bet that would trigger an early election to hand him the premiership and what he said would be "full powers" for his anti-migrant, euro-skeptic forces.

To Salvini's shock, Conte cobbled together an alternate coalition, again with the populist 5-Star Movement as senior partner but this time also with the center-left Democratic Party and a tiny left-wing party.

That gave Conte a fairly comfortable majority in the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the first confidence vote was being held Monday night.

But the government's margin majority in the Senate is tight. The Senate confidence vote is set for Tuesday.

If Conte loses, he must resign.

Conte vowed that his new government would solidly support a strong, united Europe and focus on getting Italy's stubbornly stagnant economy growing again.

"Italy will be a protagonist of a phase of relaunching and renewal of the (European) Union that aims at building a Europe with more solidarity, more inclusive, closer to citizens, more attentive to environmental sustainability" among other goals, Conte said.

Buoyed by a League triumph in European Parliament elections this year, Salvini stiffened an already-tough government policy on illegal immigration, with a decree that harshly enforces a ban on charity migrant rescue boats from entering Italian ports.

Conte indicated that migrant policy will be tweaked, but gave no specifics.

One lawmaker from a tiny party has expressed ambivalence about the new coalition, still containing populists. Still, Riccardo Magi, from the More Europe party, announced his reluctant support, saying the risk of an "illiberal and anti-European drift" if Conte's government falls would be worse.

Salvini and his allies have been crying foul, contending the Italians, who rewarded him in opinion polls with soaring popularity, deserved to have early elections.

Referring to the coalition deal, far-right lawmaker Andrea Delmastro delle Vedove contended that Italians "were robbed by a vulgar thief of their right to vote."

While Conte addressed Parliament, Salvini rallied a few thousands supporters who squeezed into the small square outside the Chamber of Deputies. The rally was organized by the far-right Brothers of Italy party, which has neo-fascist roots.

"In the square, there's a piece of Italy that I think is the majority in the country which asks to vote," Salvini said.

"Our voice counts. They have to respect the people's voice, we must vote," said Daniela De Licio, who turned out for the rally from the Rome suburb of Tivoli.

Wary of yearslong bad blood between Democrats and 5-Stars, Conte called for political forces to "put aside egoism and old rancor."

With the difficult task of slashing billions of euros from the 2020 state budget looming, Conte appealed to EU leaders for flexibility in spending rules.

Conte also insisted that EU nations take their share of asylum-seekers and refugees, who are fleeing poverty as well as persecution. Opinion polls show Italians favored the crackdowns on illegal immigration led by Salvini when he was interior minister.

Harsh EU fiscal rules, coupled with a perceived lack of EU solidarity as Italy struggled to serve huge numbers of migrants who headed to Europe by crossing the Mediterranean Sea, helped boost the popularity of Salvini's "Italians First" League.

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