After days of mounting political tension, the leading players in Italy’s bickering coalition government tried to steer their way to calmer waters on Friday, pledging to meet and discuss their differences in a bid to hold the government together.
The two main governing factions, the far-right League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, have been increasingly at odds, even trading personal barbs, raising speculation that the coalition might collapse after less than 14 months in office, forcing early elections.
As cabinet members gathered on Friday for a scheduled meeting in Rome, Matteo Salvini, the League’s leader, said that he would sit down with the Five Star leader, Luigi Di Maio. Both men hold the post of deputy prime minister and are considered the real powers in the government nominally led by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
“We will certainly meet,” Mr. Salvini said in a statement. “The problem is not Di Maio, but opposition coming from many Five Star politicians.”
At a news conference soon after the cabinet meeting, Mr. Conte said, “None of my ministers ever proposed a government reshuffle.” He ruled out the possibility of a change in the power balance within the coalition to avert a political crisis.
Five Star opposes to some of the League’s proposals, like granting greater autonomy to the regions, a change dear to the wealthier northern regions that are League bastions. The Movement fears that the legislation would damage its own strongholds, the southern regions, whose weaker economy makes them more dependent on central government funds.
The sniping between them reached a new level of intensity on Thursday, with bitter statements from the two leaders.
In the morning, Mr. Salvini accused Five Star of betrayal for voting in favor of the mainstream candidate for president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen of Germany, whom he considered an expression of “the old.” Five Star’s support in the European Parliament was crucial to Ms. von der Leyen’s narrow victory on Tuesday, and a rejection of the radical change Mr. Salvini said was needed.
Asked by a reporter whether there was a lack of trust between the League and its governing partner, he said: “Yes, there is. Unfortunately also personal trust, because I trusted them for months and months.”
Mr. Di Maio’s response was almost immediate. In a live video on Facebook, he scrolled through the morning papers, accusing the League of fabricating lies and making threats against his party.
For more than a week, Italy’s national news media have devoted great attention to a conversation last year in a central Moscow hotel that suggested a plan to secretly finance the League with Russian money ahead of the European elections.
Prosecutors in Milan opened an investigation into the proposed deal this year, and acquired an audio recording of the meeting among a close aide to Mr. Salvini, Russian officials, an international lawyer and a banking expert. An Italian investigative magazine published an account of the meeting in February.
Last week, BuzzFeed News published a transcript of the recording and made excerpts from it public, confirming Italian news media accounts of the meeting. Since then, television cameras have been following the prosecutors and their questioning of the Italian nationals who attended the meeting with minute-by-minute reports.
Mr. Salvini denied that his party ever took any money from Russia or any other foreign source. But the news media have reveled in exposing details about his personal closeness to the aide recorded talking with the Russians, Gianluca Savoini, the president of the Lombardy Russia association. And photos of the two men smiling and hugging have occupied newspapers’ front pages.
Political commentators have speculated about whether Mr. Salvini might welcome a government collapse, and whether he was stoking tensions within the coalition to deflect attention from the Russian affair.
On Thursday night, the possibility of a coalition breakdown made headlines on the websites of the country’s major newspapers, as rumors circulated about a possible meeting between Mr. Salvini and Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
Such a meeting could have signaled Mr. Salvini’s willingness to force a crisis. In that case, the president would consult with top officials and gauge whether the government could continue, and decide whether to call elections.
A senior official at the president’s office, however, said that Mr. Salvini had made an informal request to meet Mr. Mattarella days ago, but that no date had been set. The request did not specify the motive behind the meeting.
Late Thursday night, Mr. Salvini said that he would not meet Mr. Mattarella on Friday, and that there would be no immediate crisis.
“No government is going to fall tomorrow,” he told the Rete 4 television station. “I am going ahead calmly,” he added, “but if I have to hear ‘no’ every day, then it gets difficult.”
The two ruling parties are bound together thanks to a governing agreement aimed at reconciling their differing agendas.
“Nothing personal,” Mr. Salvini said on Friday morning. “Di Maio is a fair and decent person.”