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Italy's new gov't takes office, but how long will it last?

ROME (AP) — Italy's new government took office Thursday, with one of its first decisions indicating it intends to reverse the euroskeptic vision of the collapsed, populist coalition it replaced. Premier Giuseppe Conte and his Cabinet took an oath to defend Italy's interests in a swearing-in ceremony presided over by the Italian head of state in the Quirinal presidential palace.

Conte's first, 14-month-long coalition imploded last month after the right-wing League, led by Matteo Salvini, pulled out of a government it had formed with the populist 5-Star Movement. In the new government, the staunchly pro-Europe, center-left Democratic Party replaced the League as junior coalition partner.

Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti has pledged to use his party's influence in the new government to ensure that euro-currency member Italy will help the European Union withstand the nationalist movements gaining traction on the continent, including Salvini's forces.

The new dynamics of the coalition had an immediate effect, with the decision to designate former Democratic Premier Paolo Gentiloni for an EU commission post. Salvini should have made the selection, since his League triumphed in May's European Parliament elections. Instead he dithered over who to choose while strategizing his power play. After the Democrats and 5-Star teamed up in a new government excluding the League, Salvini lost his power — and with it, the opportunity to have an exponent of his nationalist party in the Brussels-based executive.

The new government's pick of Gentiloni is "an excellent choice for Italy, which is back to being a protagonist in Europe," tweeted Zingaretti, referring to the euro-skeptic bent of the just-ended government.

Ten ministers are from the 5-Stars, nine are Democrats and a tiny left-wing party has one minister. The one minister without any party affiliations is the interior minister, who plays a central role in dealing with the migrant crisis. Luciana Lamorgese has spent most of her career in interior ministry posts.

Although the Democrat-led government preceding Conte's first coalition began making it harder for humanitarian boats which rescued migrants in the Mediterranean Sea to operate, Salvini stiffened the crackdown considerably. That reflected his voter base, which largely blames migrants for crime.

On Thursday, Salvini wrestled with pushback on his hard-line migrant policies. The captain of a rescue boat operated by the German charity Sea Watch lodged a defamation complaint against Salvini, who had accused her of deliberately ramming a customs police boat when she steered her vessel, crowded with migrants, toward a dock on Italy's Lampedusa island in defiance of his ban on docking.

With prosecutors investigating the complaint, Salvini brushed off the potential legal woe, calling it a "medal" and adding "I'll never give in, never" on the anti-migrant strategy. At the new coalition's inaugural Cabinet meeting, the government formally challenged anti-migrant measures enacted by a northeastern Italian region headed by a League governor.

Friuli Venezia Giulia Gov. Massimiliano Fedriga said he'd appeal the Cabinet's decision to challenge the law abolishing some funding to integrate foreigners in local communities. How long this coalition of former enemies lasts could largely depend on how determined it is to avoid early elections that could bring Salvini back to power. Soaring in popularity in opinion polls, Salvini had calculated that by bolting from Conte's first coalition, early elections would be called that would give him the premiership.

But the marriage of convenience between the 5-Stars, whose popularity was sinking in opinion polls, and the Democrats — Parliament's largest opposition force — thwarted Salvini's gambit, at least for now.

The new coalition has a slim majority in Parliament, where Conte's government faces mandatory confidence votes in each chamber early next week. Giorgia Meloni, who leads the steadily growing far-right Brothers of Italy Party, which has roots in neo-fascism, exhorted supporters to protest outside the Chamber of Deputies headquarters on Monday, when Conte will pitch for lawmakers' votes.

Follow Frances D'Emilio on Twitter at https://twitter.com/fdemilio

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