Morning Brief

Italy Faces Political Turmoil as Conte Resigns

The Italian prime minister takes the fall to avoid humiliation in an upcoming vote, but could yet stay on as the country’s leader.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte takes notes during a debate ahead of a confidence vote at the Senate on January 19, 2021 at Palazzo Madama in Rome.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte takes notes during a debate ahead of a confidence vote at the Senate on January 19, 2021 at Palazzo Madama in Rome.

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Italy’s prime minister resigns, China announces new drills in South China Sea, and India’s farmers mount a Republic Day protest.

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Conte Resigns as Italian Prime Minister

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte will resign his position today, heading off a potentially embarrassing defeat in parliament and capping a tumultuous 12 months for the country.

Although Conte appears to be throwing in the towel, his exit as the head of Italy’s government is far from assured and many see it as a tactical move to gain support. Upon announcing his plans to resign on Monday, his coalition partners almost immediately issued calls for him to stay on.

That hasn’t stopped opposition voices from crying out for elections. Matteo Salvini, a former deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League party called for a fresh vote to “give the say back to the people and, for five years, a serious and legitimate government chosen by the Italians.”

Conte’s options. Conte was left with little choice after only narrowly surviving confidence votes in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate following the departure of Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party from his governing coalition. Renzi had split with the government over the handling of  coronavirus economic recovery plans, clashing with the Five Star Movement over tapping into the European Stability Mechanism for an emergency loan to prop up its ailing health service.

Conte’s resignation plunges Italy into a state of uncertainty that has become the norm for Italian politics; the country has had a new head of government every two years since 1989. Conte could yet stay on as prime minister in an acting capacity, or even as head of a different party coalition.

Un uomo popolare? It seems a majority of Italians also want him to stay. A recent Morning Consult poll gave Conte a 56 percent approval rating, coming only second to Angela Merkel in net favorability rankings of European leaders.

What We’re Following Today

India’s farmers protest on Republic Day. Indian farmers have once again marched on New Delhi today, on a national holiday, in continued protest of agricultural reforms passed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The mass demonstrations come after the Indian government last week proposed suspending the implementation of the new laws for 18 months, an offer that was swiftly rejected.

China to conduct South China Sea drills. China is to conduct military exercises in the South China Sea this week in what appears to be partly in response to a U.S. carrier group entering the area on Saturday. On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian admonished the U.S. government, saying the U.S. operations were merely to “flex its muscles.”

“This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region,” Zhao added.

Dutch riots continue. Riots in the Netherlands against new coronavirus restrictions continued for a third consecutive night on Monday as police arrested at least 70 people across the country. The unrest followed the announcement of new restrictions on movement, including a 9 p.m. to 4:30 a.m. curfew, with rulebreakers facing a roughly $115 fine. 

India-China border tensions. The Indian army has admitted to engaging in a “minor face-off” with Chinese forces along its disputed Himalayan border. Indian media reported multiple injuries from the incident, although both Chinese and Indian authorities deny this. The news comes as Indian and Chinese military leaders spent Sunday locked in talks to resolve tensions sparked by a fatal standoff last April.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Sushant Singh explores the delicate balancing act the Modi government must pursue regarding China, while avoiding being seen as a tool of U.S. interests.

Keep an Eye On

Guaidó demoted. European Union member states have abided by their Jan. 6 decision to no longer recognize Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó as the country’s interim president following the election of a new National Assembly. In a statement on Monday, EU states described Guaidó as a “privileged interlocutor” and called on the Venezuelan government to respect the rights of political opponents. Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, told senators during his confirmation hearing that the United States would continue to recognize Guaidó as interim president.

BBC documents Wuhan timeline.
A doctor who worked in a Wuhan hospital at the heart of the initial coronavirus pandemic has said he and colleagues understood the high transmissibility of the disease in early January but were stopped by hospital officials from relaying the information. The revelation comes in a new BBC documentary addressing the 54 days between the first known COVID-19 case and Wuhan’s first lockdown. The news comes as a World Health Organization team finished up its quarantine precautions before launching into its investigation of the origins of the coronavirus, beginning in Wuhan.

Agent Orange lawsuit. A French court is to hear a case brought against a number of international companies involved in the development of the toxic chemical defoliant Agent Orange during the Vietnam war, with possible implications for the United States. The case was brought by Tran To Nga, a 78-year-old French-Vietnamese woman, who alleges that the companies—which include Monsanto and Dow Chemical—played down the herbicide’s toxicity and misled the U.S. government. The companies named in the lawsuit maintain that it was the U.S. government that ultimately designed Agent Orange, leaving the firms blameless for the severe illnesses, birth defects, and other medical problems experience by those who were exposed.

Odds and Ends

A Canadian former gambling corporation CEO and his wife have been fined after the two went to extraordinary lengths to get a coronavirus vaccine. According to the Yukon News, Rodney and Ekaterina Baker traveled to remote Beaver Creek via private chartered plane to join a community of roughly 100 people, including members of the White River First Nation (WRFN), who were benefiting from a mobile vaccine rollout.

The couple allegedly posed as nearby motel workers to receive the Moderna jab, but were apprehended at the airport after an anonymous tip and issued with fines of roughly $900 each. WRFN has asked Canadian law enforcement to “pursue a more just punishment” than the fines as a way to deter others from trying the same scheme.

The couple needn’t have gone through the trouble: Canada has already purchased 214 million vaccine shots for its 38 million people, the most per capita of any nation.

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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