Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte handed in his resignation Tuesday, the opening shot in a bid to shape a new, more stable “government of national safety.” His resignation, which came after his uneasy coalition government lost the support of a junior center-left governing partner, has plunged the pandemic-struck country into fresh political turmoil.
Conte is focusing on wooing the wily Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party, which could be wiped out if fresh elections have to be held in the event a new coalition can’t be pieced together.
A snap election likely would see the populist Lega Party of Matteo Salvini and the far-right Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy), both Euro-skeptic, storm to victory—an outcome that would prompt jitters in Brussels and complicate Italy’s relations with the Democratic administration in Washington.
Salvini supporters were caught on tape in 2018 discussing in Moscow diverting illegally the profits from a discounted oil deal to the Lega Party, and the Fratelli d’Italia wants Western sanctions on Moscow lifted. It has called for a revision of all international treaties, including those governing Italy's membership of the eurozone and NATO, in favor of a strategic tie-up with Russia.
The beleaguered 56-year-old Conte also is trying to persuade Matteo Renzi and his Italia Viva faction to rejoin the coalition comprising the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the leftist Democratic Party. Renzi’s decision to withdraw his support from Conte’s government last week is widely seen as a scheme to secure more power for himself and cabinet roles for some of his 18 senators.
Last week, Conte survived two confidence votes in the Italian parliament, but had to do so on the back of votes from odd bedfellows.
They included a parliamentarian nicknamed Berlusconi’s “nurse” for her role in organizing media mogul Berlusconi’s infamous sex parties and a lawmaker who argues cannabis can cure COVID-19 and says coronavirus vaccines cause facial paralysis.
Conte, whose own favorability ratings are high in the opinion polls, still controls a majority in the lower parliamentary chamber, the House of Deputies, but has only minority backing in the Senate. Deprived of a Senate majority, Conte is unable to pass important legislation.
Italy is no stranger to political instability and has seen governments come and go with alarming rapidity. Conte is the country's 66th leader in 75 years. But this last bout of political turmoil comes at a time of national emergency and new economic challenges amid the pandemic.
Italy was the first European country to be struck by the coronavirus, becoming the first country to impose a national lockdown. After the government loosened restrictions, infection rates climbed with the second wave proving worse than the first. Strict pandemic restrictions over Christmas have slowed contagion rates, but added crippling costs to the country’s struggling economy.
The Italian prime minister aborted his courting last week of a small Christian Democratic faction after its leader, Lorenzo Cesa, was spotted lunching with a businessman accused of ties with Italy’s notorious ’NDrangheta mafia.
President Sergio Mattarella has asked Conte to “remain in office to handle current affairs” and in a caretaker role. The president’s office added that he will begin “consultations” with the various political parties to see whether a new coalition can be formed. Conte has led for 16 months the center-left coalition government, which came together in 2019 to thwart a bid for power by Salvini.
Luigi di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister and former Five Star Movement leader, has said he will remain aligned with Conte. “The country is going through one of its worst moments ever due to the pandemic and finds itself in an absurd government crisis due to someone's selfishness,” he tweeted.
“Now we need unity, we must all rally around Giuseppe Conte,” he added.
Vito Crimi, leader of the Five Star Movement, said that the party would remain “by Conte’s side in this very difficult time for the country. We are the supporting wall of this legislature and will act responsibly, with the interests of the people at heart.”
Democratic Party leader Nicola Zingaretti tweeted: “With Conte for a new government that is clearly pro-European and supported by a broad parliamentary base, which guarantees credibility and stability to face the great challenges that Italy faces.”
Italian officials told VOA that Mattarella is determined to avoid putting the country through elections as the country struggles to bring the coronavirus epidemic under control. If Conte fails to shape a new coalition, the president is more likely to decide to ask an outsider to form a government of experts.
Renzi withdrew from the governing alliance ostensibly over how Conte plans to spend more than $243.2 million (€200 billion) in EU recovery funds earmarked for Italy. But his withdrawal has infuriated his erstwhile PD colleagues who accuse him of naked ambition.
Former prime minister Berlusconi has left the door half open to strike a deal with Conte, saying he trusts President Sergio Matterella's “political wisdom.” But he warned Tuesday that he would withhold his backing if the new coalition is virtually the same as the outgoing coalition, which “would have the same problems as the current government,” he said. “We could never support it,” he added.
Analysts see that as code for Berlusconi wanting a serious role for his Forza Italia party, including cabinet roles.
Salvini and his Fratelli d’Italia partners are demanding fresh elections. The Lega leader says a nationwide poll would “give the say back to the people and, for five years, a serious and legitimate government chosen by the Italians.” He added: “This is not a government that can lead Italy out of this disaster.”