efe-epaGonzalo Sanchez Rome

Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini said Thursday that his right-wing Liga can no longer govern Italy in coalition with the populist Five Star Movement, calling for new elections as soon as possible.

"Let us go to Parliament immediately to acknowledge that we no longer have a majority. Let us quickly return the decision to the voters," he said in a statement addressed to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.

Speaking for Five Star, the other deputy premier, Luigi Di Maio, said that new elections must wait until after Parliament approves his party's proposal to reduce the number of legislators with the aim of making the system more responsive and less corrupt.

"We are prepared. Power doesn't interest us and it never has. But one thing is certain: when you taunt the country and the citizens, you pay for it, sooner or later," Di Maio said in a thinly veiled warning to Liga.

The governing coalition, which came into being in June 2018, has been fraying for months amid increasingly acute divisions between the partners.

The split was on full display Wednesday in Parliament as Liga lawmakers voted in favor of a proposed high-speed rail link between Turin and the French city of Lyon, while the Five Star members were unanimous in opposition.

Salvini cited Wednesday's vote as evidence that the coalition was over, while also complaining of "repeated insults" directed at him and his party by Five Star politicians.

The Liga leader, who also serves as interior minister, said in his statement that the tensions within the government cannot be resolved by a Cabinet reshuffle.

"We don't want more portfolios or ministries, we don't want overhauls or technocratic governments," Salvini said. "After this government, which has done many good things, there can only be elections."

Parliament just adjourned for the August recess and it was not immediately clear how soon the Conte government could submit to a no-confidence vote, assuming that Five Star agrees to dissolve the coalition.

Salvini spoke out following a hectic day of negotiations and meetings that saw President Sergio Mattarella return from his summer residence to Rome to confer with Conte, who subsequently received the Liga chief for apparently fruitless talks.

The spell in government has made Salvini a major force in Italian politics, thanks mainly to his success in pushing anti-immigrant policies.

This week, Liga and its allies passed legislation imposing massive fines on NGOs who rescue migrants at sea.

Salvini's decision to end the coalition will not necessarily lead to early elections.

Conte could try to remain in office with support from other parties. If the prime minister were unsuccessful, Mattarella would have the option of giving someone else a change to form a government.

The most likely combination would be an alliance between Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party, though an earlier attempt to forge such a partnership ended in failure in March 2018.

In any event, elections would have to be held within a window of 45-70 days after Parliament is dissolved, meaning that the soonest a new ballot could take place is October. EFE

gsm/dr