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Italy's bitter political foes unite in bid to foil Salvini

ROME (AP) — Days after stepping down, Italy's ex-premier accepted the role of premier-designate on Thursday in a bid to cobble together a new coalition of long-time political foes aimed at blocking a power grab by Matteo Salvini, the right-wing leader whose anti-migrant crackdowns and euroskeptic provocations have dominated Italian politics for more than a year.

But even if Giuseppe Conte, a 55-year-old law professor whose political career spans 14 months at the helm of a mostly squabbling populist coalition, succeeds in building a new majority between the grass-roots 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, political analysts warn it may not last.

"Weak leadership and significant intra-party cleavages ... will limit the shelf-life" of any coalition government between the two parties, which were bitter enemies until just days ago, said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the Teneo consultancy.

Another government collapse would likely set the country back on course to new elections, which could play straight into the hands of Salvini, the leader of the right-wing, anti-migrant League party. Salvini, whose popularity soared as he grabbed the spotlight with hard-line policies blocking Italian ports to humanitarian rescue ships carrying migrants, is already crying foul, accusing the 5-Stars and the Democratic Party of engineering a plan to block his ascent to power.

On Thursday, he called for a demonstration in Rome on Oct. 19 to protest any outcome that doesn't lead to fresh elections. "We need to be heard against this theft of democracy," Salvini said in a Facebook direct video.

Salvini plunged Italy into crisis when he withdrew support for Conte earlier this month in a bid to force new elections that he was convinced the League would win. Salvini was emboldened by his strong showing in this spring's European elections as well as local votes and political surveys that showed the League had nearly doubled its support since the 2018 elections, while that of the 5-Stars had fallen by half.

But Salvini didn't count on the former political foes closing ranks. And he is set to lose both his role as Italy's powerful interior minister in charge of migrant policy and his position as vice premier if a new government is installed.

The 5-Star Movement and Democrats are an unlikely alliance. The two parties have long traded barbed insults and just last year, the Democratic Party refused to even consider talks with the 5-Star Movement after inconclusive March 2018 national elections that eventually led to the 5-Star coalition with the League.

But in accepting the challenge to create a new coalition, the head of the Democratic Party, Nicola Zingaretti, said the parties intended to end "the season of hatred, of rancor and of fear." Salvini's move created political instability that once again focused investor attention on Italy, raising borrowing costs on its stubbornly high debt which eased after President Sergio Mattarella formally tapped Conte as premier-designate. Italy also faces a critical fall deadline for drafting a budget for the European Union, with the looming prospect of raising the value-added tax to cover shortfalls.

Conte is seen as an ally of the 5-Stars, even though the law professor had no party affiliation when he became premier in June 2018. He kept a relatively low profile during the 5-Star-League government, but before handing in his resignation on Aug. 20, he blasted Salvini for forcing his government to collapse.

Conte immediately began meetings with parties Thursday, and said he will work hard to give the country a solid government as Rome faces key decisions and a delicate political phase. "We're at the beginning of a new legislature and we need to make up for the time we've lost to allow Italy to recover its central role in Europe," Conte said.

He stressed that a new government would not be "against someone" — a clear reference to Salvini — but said the government needed to act quickly to name Italy's candidate for the new European Commission and to draft a complex budget law.

"This is a very delicate phase for the country," Conte said. "We need to exit political uncertainty as quickly as possible."

Barry reported from Milan.

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