By Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - An Italian Senate committee on Monday approved a court's request to pursue an investigation into far-right League leader Matteo Salvini, a move that could give rise to a trial for alleged kidnapping of migrants.
If definitively found guilty the head of the League, currently Italy's most popular party, would face up to 15 years in jail. He could also be barred from political office, dashing his ambitions to lead a future government.
"I will go to court with my head high in the name of the Italian people," Salvini told supporters. "If they arrest me they will have to find a prison big enough for all of us."
In July 2019 Salvini, who had staked his political credibility on a vow to curb immigration from Africa, ordered 131 rescued migrants to remain on a ship off Sicily for six days until other European states agreed to take them in.
The court in the Sicilian city of Catania - a special tribunal in charge of investigations into ministers - last month recommended he stand trial on charges of illegally detaining the migrants on the coast guard ship Gregoretti.
The Senate panel's vote comes at a sensitive time. Regional elections that could threaten the survival of the 4-month-old coalition of the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) are due on Sunday.
Salvini's opposition League party hopes to win control of Emilia-Romagna, a rich northern region ruled by leftist parties since World War Two. Polls point to a close race between the League and the PD.
The vote in the 23-strong senate committee ended in a tie, with five in favour of granting the court's request and five against. Under senate regulations this means the investigation can go ahead.
The League's senators voted in favour while the other centre-right opposition parties voted against. Both 5-Star and the PD boycotted the sitting.
The final decision depends on a vote by the full Senate next month. The positions of the League, the PD and 5-Star could all change after the Emilia-Romagna election is over.
All the main parties shifted their positions over the kidnapping investigation over the last few days because of its possible repercussions for the election.
Fearing Salvini would exploit the case by claiming to be a martyr sacrificing himself to protect Italy's borders, the ruling parties first tried to have the hearing delayed and then decided not to take part in it.
Their fears were confirmed when Salvini, who had previously insisted the magistrates' request to investigate him should be thrown out, abruptly changed position on Saturday.
"I am formally asking the senators to send me to trial, because the Italian people will be on trial with me," he told a campaign rally, instructing the League's senators on the panel to allow the probe to go ahead.
(Additional reporting and editing by Gavin Jones; Editing by Giles Elgood)