ROME — Italy’s history of political instability resurfaced on Wednesday in particularly volatile times as a government crisis began amid a pandemic that has devastated the country, raised doubts over the competence of its leaders and intensified political battles.
The government, a wobbly coalition of convenience between increasingly unpopular populists and the centre-left establishment, seemed on the verge of implosion amid long-simmering power struggles, revenge plots and disputes ideologies on EU bailout funds.
Italy now finds itself in a time of familiar political uncertainty, but far more dangerous given the pandemic.
The crisis was triggered by the withdrawal of government ministers by a former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, who controls a small but critical backing in the government majority. His gamble, which nervous political leaders have spent the week trying to avoid, puts his rival, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, in a difficult position.
The opening of a government crisis comes as Italy, the first European country to be heavily affected by the virus and among the most devastated by it, embarks on a vaccination program on which the nation’s hopes rest.
Italian voters, who largely don’t understand or care about the machinations and battles between political leaders, fear the outage will hamper Italy’s virus response and delay a return to some semblance of normality. .
At a press conference on Wednesday evening, Mr. Renzi, a centre-left politician, officially announced the resignation of two of his ministers. He did not rule out joining another government led by Mr Conte, but claimed the prime minister had forced his hand by using the pandemic as a pretext to circumvent democratic institutions.
“Precisely because there is the pandemic, you have to respect the rules of democracy,” he said.
Expressing an unspoken complaint among many in the Democratic Party, which he once led, Mr Renzi said the more populist members of government were more focused on receiving likes on social media than serious governance. He said Mr Conte’s government had failed to advance infrastructure projects, invest in jobs for Italy’s youth and sufficiently condemn President Trump’s supporters who stormed the building from the US Capitol a week ago.
More importantly, he said, the ideological populists in Mr Conte’s government had refused to accept billions of euros in bailouts from the European Union for Italy’s healthcare system.
The reaction to Mr. Renzi’s split was swift and negative across the Italian political landscape, with leaders lamenting that Mr. Renzi’s decision was unreasonable, politically motivated and had plunged the country into the abyss.
“A grave mistake made by the few that we will all pay for,” wrote Andrea Orlando, a former ally of Mr. Renzi in the Democratic Party. Twitter.
The administration of Mr. Conte could manage to retain a parliamentary majority, potentially through a reshuffle of the current cabinet. But it becomes more difficult without Mr. Renzi’s approval.
Mr Conte could also simply resign, causing the government to collapse amid Italy’s worst national crisis since World War II. The Italian president could then ask someone with enough support, perhaps even Mr. Conte again, to form another government that would receive parliamentary approval.
But if a new durable coalition cannot be found, the political crisis could eventually trigger new elections under potentially dangerous conditions and open the door to the return of nationalist forces.
Mr. Renzi’s critics, who are not lacking, see him as a vengeful and ambitious politician who only had the power to destroy, but could not help using it.
Mr. Renzi, a skilled political operator in the center-left establishment, effectively sidelined nationalist leader Matteo Salvini in 2019. After Mr. Salvini walked away from a coalition government in a take of power, Mr Renzi seized the moment, swallowing his considerable pride in forging an unlikely alliance between the Democratic Party he once led and the populist Five Star Movement which had spent years spreading insults and misinformation to its subject and who had driven him out of power. This agreement prevented new elections that Mr. Salvini had to win and kept him at bay.
Mr. Renzi then quickly left the Democratic Party and formed a small party, Italia Viva, which failed to gain any real influence. But it has enough deputies to be decisive for the survival of the government made up of Five Star and the Democratic Party.
Tensions between Mr Conte and Mr Renzi erupted in December when Mr Conte announced the formation of another task force to decide how to spend the more than 200 billion euros – around $243 billion – the European Union Recovery Fund.
Mr Renzi is also demanding that the government accept a separate sum of 36 billion euros – around $44 billion – made available by the European Union for the Italian health system. Five Star, which came to power expressing anti-establishment anger at Brussels, dismissed the source of that funding, called the European Stability Mechanism, as anathema to its populist roots.
For weeks, Mr. Conte and Mr. Renzi played chicken. The popular support of Mr. Renzi, already scratching the basement, reduced the downside of doing something unpopular. Having nothing to lose gave him more leverage in his confrontation with Mr. Conte, who had in fact given in to many of Mr. Renzi’s demands.
But the Prime Minister remained firm on his refusal to take money from the European Stability Mechanism.
Looking ahead to Mr. Renzi’s leap, Mr. Salvini, the populist leader, was salivating at the prospect of another chance at power.
“Better an election or a centre-right government than this bickering,” he told reporters on the sidelines of a protest in Rome.
On Wednesday evening, Mr. Renzi said he opposed the possibility of new elections. To prevent that from happening, he could turn his support back to Mr Conte, but in a crisis things are unpredictable and can spiral out of control. For this reason, members of the government sought to pull Mr. Renzi from the edge of the abyss.
Diehard Five Star members have ruled out working with Mr. Renzi’s party again if he causes the government to collapse.
It’s unclear where that leaves Mr. Renzi, or Italy.
Some of Italy’s leading virologists are clearly sick of political distractions during a health emergency.
“The orchestra is playing as the Titanic sinks,” Massimo Galli, director of infectious diseases at Luigi Sacco Hospital in Milan, told Italian television. “There is a chance that next week we will have hospitals in big trouble again.”