ROME — Earlier this month, Matteo Salvini, the surging leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League party, announced that he’d had it with his own coalition government and wanted new elections.
“I ask the Italian people if they want to give me full powers to do what we have promised to do, and go all the way without hurdles,” the perennially campaigning Mr. Salvini said at a rally on Aug. 8.
But he seems to have underestimated one rather large hurdle, an Italian parliamentary system that makes America’s Electoral College look elementary and the angling around Brexit seem the stuff of babes.
On Tuesday, a no-confidence vote sought by Mr. Salvini is scheduled against Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. That would seem to signal the end of Mr. Salvini’s rocky coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, seal the fate of the 65th Italian government since the end of World War II and open the door to new elections.
But it’s not quite that easy, and so Italian politics has reverted to the art it seems to have perfected, teetering on a knife-edge where anything can happen, even nothing at all.
His public standing having skyrocketed over the last year, Mr. Salvini may be Italy’s most popular political force outside the Italian Parliament. But inside Parliament is a parallel universe, where his power is frozen in an earlier, weaker time, and his enemies still hold sway.
There are parties that still have representation in Parliament, but which have essentially vanished from opinion polls. There are leaders who still exercise enormous influence in the chambers, but who would turn to dust in the light of national elections. There are members who are just getting settled in for a five-year term, and who don’t want to risk losing their highly paid seats to rival parties, or even competing candidates from their own parties.
While Mr. Salvini would like very much to go to elections to add to his supporters in Parliament and consolidate his grip on the government, the majority of members are in no rush.
Mr. Salvini’s gambit for elections has instead sparked an explosion of energy among the long- dormant political forces who have filled the last days with enough plotting, conniving, deceiving and posturing to do Machiavelli proud.
In Parliament’s arena of pure power politics, ideologies and animosities are for amateurs. Interests are all that matter. And few are aligned with Mr. Salvini’s.
Even if the confidence vote goes against Mr. Conte, or if he resigns before it can take place, President Sergio Mattarella is obliged to consult with the leaders of Italy’s political parties to see if another majority can be found.
If no new majority emerges, he could then install a technocratic government or call new elections, probably for the fall.
For now, however, it has been a summer of speculation on the seemingly countless combinations of parties that could produce a new government short of elections.
One possibility is that the Five Star Movement, which currently has by far the largest share of seats in Parliament, joins forces with the center-left Democratic Party that it knocked out of power.
Until very recently, the two parties demonized one another as evil incarnate. But a shot at power changes everything.
Over the weekend, the leaders of the Five Star Movement met in the villa of a co-founder, the comedian Beppe Grillo, on the Tuscan coast, to plot a strategy. Almost everyone seated at the table over beers and lemonades had his own agenda.
Davide Casaleggio, an unelected entrepreneur who owns the party’s internet platform, is seen as eager to avoid new elections that would most likely decimate Five Star’s ranks.
Alessandro Di Battista, the party’s motorcycle-driving version of Che Guevara, is reportedly eager for elections and a shot to claim the party’s leadership.
The current political leader of the party, Luigi Di Maio, 33, whose previous job experience consisted largely of working as an usher in a soccer stadium, badly wants to hold on to his government job.
But the one thing they could agree on was that Mr. Salvini’s betrayal was too great to forgive.
“All those present were agreed in defining Salvini as no longer a credible interlocutor,” the Five Star Movement said in a statement, thus opening the door to negotiations with the Democratic Party.
A new coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party might mean that Mr. Conte could actually keep his job, but as prime minister of a new government.
Or a new coalition of the two parties could opt for a different prime minister and, as is always possible in Italian politics, Mr. Conte could find himself out in the cold.
Another possibility is that Five Star and the Democratic Party reach out to another traditional enemy to fortify their slim majority. Enter Silvio Berlusconi.
Mr. Berlusconi, who is 82 and flagging, has a history of striking deals with the Democratic Party, but he is the bête noir of the Five Star Movement, whom he has called incompetent nincompoops.
Mr. Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia, has tanked in the polls, and a new election would most likely cost most of the party’s members their jobs in Parliament. So they, and he, have a strong incentive to stay put.
Further, Mr. Berlusconi, a populist who does not have a self-esteem problem, does not like the idea of being eclipsed by Mr. Salvini.
The Italian news media has reported that Mr. Berlusconi’s longtime lieutenant, Gianni Letta, is actively working behind the scenes to form a new coalition, perhaps led by the former Democratic Party prime minister Enrico Letta, who happens to be Gianni Letta’s nephew.
Others have speculated that — suddenly confronted by the long math of Italian politics, and the realization that his national support doesn’t matter much inside Parliament — Mr. Salvini may simply have miscalculated.
There is, then, the possibility that he could pull the plug on pulling the plug.
After having pushed Tuesday’s no-confidence vote, there is still a chance that Mr. Salvini votes to preserve the government, and his job in it.
He has already prepared the justification by assailing his rivals, including his mortal enemy, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party, for trying to block new elections.
“If you want to form a government with Renzi you will have to step over my dead body,” Mr. Salvini said on television this week.
Mr. Renzi, who resigned from office in 2016 after losing a key referendum, can’t wait to return to political relevance and walk all over Mr. Salvini.
Mr. Renzi has his own calculations for not wanting elections now. Though he also resigned leadership of the Democratic Party, he still controls a large chunk of party members in Parliament.
If there are new elections, the new party leader, Nicola Zingaretti, will most likely replace them with his own candidates.
That has led Mr. Renzi to overcome his formerly seething opposition to the Five Star Movement, which he has accused of spreading hate and misinformation on the web to undermine him in the past.
“Five Stars are not a democratic movement,” Mr. Renzi said on Facebook on July 22, adding, “I will not give my confidence vote to a Democratic Party-Five Stars coalition. Those who want to give it a try can do so: but nobody can prevent me to raise my voice against it, which is my right. And my duty. You can give up a seat, as I did on several occasions, but you cannot give up your dignity.”
But that was last month.