By Crispian Balmer
ROME (Reuters) - Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, who heads the far-right League party, announced last Thursday that he would file a motion of no-confidence in the government and wanted early elections.
Fast forward a week and the coalition government is still in office, with no clear picture emerging of what will happen next, or even when. Here are some of the scenarios and possible moves.
WHY HASN'T THE GOVERNMENT ALREADY COLLAPSED?
The far-right League won only 17 percent of the vote in a 2018 national election and does not have enough lawmakers to impose a timetable for its no-confidence motion. Playing for time, and making clear they will not be pushed around by Salvini, the ruling 5-Star Movement, the opposition center-left Democratic Party (PD) and the leftist LEU party voted together on Tuesday to push the debate on the government into next week.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is due to address the Senate on Aug. 20 about the turmoil. At the end of his speech he could do what other prime ministers have done in similar situations and go straight to President Sergio Mattarella and resign, opening a formal crisis. But the picture has been clouded by Salvini's unexpected pledge on Tuesday to pass a reform cutting the number of lawmakers. This parliamentary vote is scheduled for Aug. 22 and will almost certainly not be able to take place if the government falls beforehand.
SO AUG. 22 BECOMES THE KEY DATE?
Not necessarily. Cutting the number of lawmakers is a major constitutional reform, which can be challenged by a referendum. Through anonymous quotes in the press, Mattarella's office has made it clear the president will not sanction early elections, as demanded by Salvini, until the reform is fully bedded into the constitution -- a process that could take many months. This might make Salvini reconsider his offer to vote on the overhaul.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS THEN?
At some stage next week it is highly likely that Salvini will get his way and bring down the government. At that point, attention will switch to President Mattarella, who must decide the next steps. He will hold consultations with all the political leaders. If he decides there is no way of creating a stable, new government, he will call for elections, which would probably be held in late October, some 3-1/2 years ahead of schedule. He might appoint a caretaker administration of technocrats to manage day-to-day business ahead of the vote.
COULD A STABLE, NEW GOVERNMENT BE FORMED?
In theory yes. 5-Star, PD and LEU showed on Tuesday that together they have the numbers to control parliament. With polls predicting that Salvini and his allies would triumph in an early election, his foes have an incentive to keep the legislature alive. Up to half of 5-Star lawmakers look set to lose their seats in an early vote, making them open to other alternatives.
However, there is a lot of bad blood between 5-Star and the PD, which will make it hard for them to forge an alliance. An alternative solution could be a government of unelected technocrats with a set program, such as approving a budget, which would be supported by assorted parties in parliament.
The process is complicated by divisions within the PD, whose backing would be needed for any alternative administration. It has only recently picked a new leader, Nicola Zingaretti, and many of the current PD lawmakers owe their allegiance to the former chief -- Matteo Renzi. Zingaretti might be tempted to accept new elections. It would mean near certain defeat, but would let him get his own people into parliament.
WHAT ARE THE EXPERTS SAYING?
Italy's Corriere Della Sera newspaper said on Wednesday this was "the maddest crisis in the world" and political commentators are deeply divided over the likely outcome. The left-leaning Repubblica daily said on Wednesday that Tuesday's manoeuvrings now made early elections unlikely. A survey of political analysts and journalists conducted by polling agency Youtrend showed they were split 50/50 between those expecting an October vote and those forecasting a new government.
(Reporting by Crispian Balmer,; Editing by Gavin Jones and Stephen Powell)