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Salvini rallies supporters, demands election date

Catherine MARCIANO with Françoise KADRI in Rome
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The social media-loving Salvini has been burnishing his "man of the people" image through a series of beach selfies in swimming trunks in recent days

Italy's hardline Interior Minister Matteo Salvini embarked on a southern tour to rally support on Saturday, demanding an election date be set after he pulled out of the coalition government, plunging the country into a political crisis.

"The only thing I am interested in is that we fix a date for the election. Italians need to know when they can vote for a new government," Salvini said, taking selfies of himself among a crowd in the southern town of Policoro.

He urged lawmakers to decide quickly, saying he was ready and willing "to give Italy a courageous, stable government which will last 10 years."

Salvini told Rai Uno television on Friday that he had had enough of working with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) led by Luigi di Maio and what he said was its refusal to work together on key issues during their 14-month alliance.

"I am in Puglia, I am meeting workers, farmers, they want a government which ensures certainty for investors," he said.

Taking his message to the beaches at the height of the summer holiday season, Salvini is seeking to build on the League's strong showing in May's European Parliament elections when it won 34 percent of the vote, twice that of the M5S.

The message appears to be getting across to some.

Niccola D'Ecclesis, holidaying in Puglia, said he voted for M5S "in protest", but was now a fervent Salvini fan.

"Salvini is in action, he is not afraid," he said.

However, it was not all sunshine for Salvini in Policoro, one of the southern areas where M5S did well in last year's general election.

Some young people greeted Salvini with cries of "fascist" and "racist", as well as singing "Bella Ciao", an anthem of the Italian resistance during World War II.

One person even tried to throw a glass of water in his face, but Salvini was unperturbed by the incident.

His "beach tour" ends on Sunday in Sicily.

- Di Maio attacks Salvini -

For his part, Di Maio attacked his erstwhile colleague for wanting to ditch a government which over the past year "has resisted the lobbying of the powerful, adopted the toughest anti-corruption legislation in Europe and helped pensioners, the poor and the needy."

He also called for an urgent vote on reducing the number of lawmakers in parliament before going into an election.

"Let's get rid of 345 of the seats in parliament (out of 950) and their salaries," he said on Facebook, adding that the money saved could be better spent.

If Salvini gets his way, Italy could go to the polls in October -- when the country would also be grappling with a budget likely to provoke a fresh stand-off with the European Union over borrowing and debt levels.

Under pressure from Brussels, the government is struggling to rein in its budget deficit and manage a massive debt mountain of more than 2.3 trillion euros.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who held several rounds of talks to try to ease the crisis, angrily called on Salvini to justify his move amid speculation about a possible new government combination.

This would supposedly be between a new M5S leadership supported by the centre-left Democrat Party of former premier Matteo Renzi plus lawmakers who fear losing their seats in a snap poll.

Salvini was outraged by the possibility.

"No palace intrigues, no unusual manoeuvres, this coalition is dead and we must have elections," he told Rai Uno.

"If the kitchen is flooded, you don't wait two weeks before calling the plumber," he said, urging lawmakers to return to Rome to vote down the government.

The president of the Senate has called for the heads of the parliamentary groups to meet Monday to set a date to discuss the League's no-confidence motion against Conte. A similar meeting in the lower house is expected on Tuesday.

An election in October would be unheard of and potentially complicate drawing up of the budget at a time when market volatility is already high and rising, pushing up Italy's borrowing costs even more.

"Autumn coincides with key moments, like the budget law. Elections in that period are unprecedented," Massimo Franco, a columnist for Italy's biggest selling Corriere della Sera newspaper, told AFP.

The many uncertainties at home and abroad are adding to the sense of crisis in a key European economy and eurozone member state.

The decision to call an election rests with President Sergio Mattarella, currently on holiday in Sardinia, who is known to oppose polls in October.