Italy Dives Headfirst Into Political Crisis During Pandemic

Conte’s ruling coalition is out—but that may not be the end for the prime minister.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right), Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede (left), and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio talk during a debate prior to a confidence vote in Conte's government in the Senate at Palazzo Madama in Rome on Jan. 19.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (right), Justice Minister Alfonso Bonafede (left), and Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio talk during a debate prior to a confidence vote in Conte's government in the Senate at Palazzo Madama in Rome on Jan. 19. ALESSANDRA TARANTINO/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte handed in his resignation on Tuesday, just one week after he barely survived a tense confidence vote in the Senate that revealed the vulnerable underbelly of his coalition government. The move has triggered a round of discussions with other party leaders to see if a new center-right coalition can be formed or a new round of national elections—the first in almost three years—will be necessary.

Many Italians already questioned why lawmakers were wrapped up in political squabbles when the country should be focusing on the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine and reducing the virus’s death toll, already at more than 85,000 people, in addition to boosting Italy’s faltering economy.

The answer, unsurprisingly, is politics—and ambition.

What brought on Conte’s resignation?

After Conte failed to secure enough parliamentary votes for the absolute majority he needed to easily pass legislation last week, Conte had hoped to shore up his coalition in the coming days instead of dissolving his government. “Now the objective is to solidify the majority,” Conte had tweeted. “We don’t have a minute to lose.”

But after less than a week of talks with fellow party leaders, his resignation signals a breakdown of discussions and a growing fear that he would have faced a devastating legislative rebuke as soon as Wednesday if he had moved ahead with his agenda without first bolstering his base. By offering his letter of resignation now, Conte has a better chance of using his remaining political leverage to form a new coalition government and remain in power.

Conte submitted his resignation for a second time during his nearly three years in office thanks to an opportunistic opposition leader with a laser focus on regaining the premiership.

Ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi kicked off the country’s most recent political turmoil by abruptly breaking ranks with Conte’s coalition last week, blaming Conte’s mismanagement of the pandemic response and national economy. Renzi, the leader of the liberal Italia Viva party, has been vocal about his disagreement with the coalition leader since Conte refused to accept all available recovery loans from the European Union’s pandemic assistance fund to avoid potential EU-imposed austerity measures down the line.

Conte’s ruling government had been in power for just over a year, after his first coalition fell apart when Matteo Salvini of the far-right Northern League party challenged Conte’s power in what appeared to be an opportune power grab intended to catalyze new elections at a time when support for the League was high. The attempt didn’t work, in part because Renzi and his party refused to support Salvini’s bid for more influence. Conte was pushed into temporarily resigning as a result of Salvini’s rupture, however, but was able to quickly form a new coalition government that kept him at the head.

Why did Renzi turn on Conte?

Renzi was forced to resign as prime minister in 2016 after almost three years in office—a feat matched by only four other governments in Italian history—when he was roundly defeated in a national referendum on a series of constitutional amendments that centralized power and reduced the size of the Senate by two-thirds. Although he kept his promise to resign from the premiership after the failed referendum, Renzi won a seat in the Senate as a Democratic Party representative for Florence in 2018 and formed his current party, Italia Viva, a year later.

Skeptics suspect that Renzi’s rebuttal of Salvini in 2018 and his most recent turn on Conte were all steps in a power play to retake the premiership, despite recent polling data placing his popularity levels in the single digits. The poll numbers do not reflect the political influence held by the 46-year-old senator, whose political party could be the deciding factor in whether Conte is able to form a stronger coalition or if the country will be forced to form a new coalition with new elections.

Will Conte make a comeback, or will Italy hold new elections?

Conte must now focus on convincing his remaining coalition members to stay by his side while also courting at least a few votes from former opposition representatives such as the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and far-right Northern League—both parties that aligned with Conte in his first 2018 coalition. Because Conte and his allies are afraid of the rising popularity of more extreme political parties, they will most likely do everything they can to avoid holding national elections anytime soon.

Conte’s ability to quickly propose legislation and get it passed through Parliament is essential for the fight against COVID-19. Ironically, Renzi’s complaints about Conte’s mismanagement of the government’s coronavirus response have caused Conte to divert more time to the political crisis and, in effect, lend more weight to Renzi’s initial argument that Conte isn’t focusing enough on Italy’s pandemic and economic recovery needs. Renzi has backed Conte into a corner.

Already after last week’s narrow victory for Conte, 57 percent of Italians believed that the prime minister should resign because he failed to maintain an absolute majority, according to a national poll published last Friday. Two-thirds of those polled said they no longer had faith in Conte, and almost 40 percent said they wanted to see new elections immediately. And this was before he resigned.

Unless Conte can find new coalition members in the next round of the political fight, his days will almost certainly be numbered.

Katie Livingstone is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @sassovivente

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