But if Conte fails to muster a new majority, far bigger political changes could upend a country grappling not only with the virus but also with its deepest recession on record. Italy could end up with an unelected unity government – or new elections that would bring the far right to power.
Italy has long been accustomed to weak governments. Faced with a coronavirus emergency, the parties in this center-left coalition were prepared to ignore their differences. But it is now clear that the pandemic has survived political goodwill.
Italy is preparing to spend an unprecedented flow of European Union recovery money, and the row over how to use it has deepened the personal enmity between feuding centrists Renzi and Conte the same voters.
Renzi’s decision sparked a mixture of anger and confusion across much of the country, with an opinion poll suggesting that nearly three-quarters of Italians believe he looks after his own political interests above all else. But Renzi, at a press conference on Wednesday, argued that coping with the pandemic also means “solving problems, not hiding them”, and he took issue with Conte’s strategy to rebuild the tattered economy of the city. ‘Italy.
In recent weeks, Renzi has pushed the government to rewrite its plan to use some 200 billion euros (about $243 billion) in grants and cheap European loans, saying the original plan was full of subsidies. and short of investments in health. When that plan was improved, Renzi said Conte needed to do more – and that Italy should apply for specialized loans that would bolster health care but drive the country deeper into debt.
Even pundits who agree with Renzi’s recovery ideas say part of his gamble comes down to a personal rivalry with Conte.
Conte, unknown to most Italians three years ago, has become a surprisingly durable prime minister by the standards of a country that has had more than 60 governments since World War II. Its popularity peaked last year in a firm first lockdown in the spring that helped Italy flatten the coronavirus curve through summer. It has since lost some of its shine: the virus has returned full speed ahead, and this time the country’s restrictions are less firm and much less simple, sometimes changing from day to day.
How the coronavirus surprised Italy again
Yet Conte’s popularity far exceeds that of Renzi, whose party has the support of 3% of the electorate.
Renzi was once Italy’s political golden boy, elected prime minister aged 39 in 2014. He has since refashioned himself as a backroom dealer. Sixteen months ago, he helped broker a deal between feuding rival parties – a mix of populist and centre-left forces – to keep the far right out of power.
The far right still has as much support as it did back then – enough to be the favorite in an election. But Renzi’s calculations have changed.
“Renzi is fighting for its own survival at this point,” said Federico Santi, senior analyst for Europe at Eurasia Group. “Getting rid of Conte – he thinks it might be a good long-term move.”
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, said far-right leaders were “salivating” at the chaos. A pair of right-wing parties, the League and the Brothers of Italy, have together held around 40% of the Italian vote for the past two years. If Italy were pushed to new elections, the government would likely become the most firmly anti-European in Western Europe.
But there are several conceivable ways to avoid an election. Even if Conte fails to muster a new majority, Italian President Sergio Mattarella could try to form an interim unity government. Some experts say Mattarella would be reluctant to call an election at the height of the pandemic. Renzi also said there would be no elections until 2023, when by law they must be held.
During his press conference, Renzi seemed to indicate that he was still open to certain negotiations, even if Conte remained prime minister.
“We can be part of the majority if they want us; we can be the opposition if they don’t want us,” he said.
Carlo Calenda, economy minister under Renzi’s administration and now a member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter that it was difficult to reconcile Renzi’s constant criticism of Conte with an apparent willingness to work with him. him. “You are either very confused or disturbed,” he said of Renzi.
But Renzi said resolving the crisis would be up to Conte.
“The consequence of the crisis? It’s at [Conte] decide. We are ready to have all kinds of discussions.
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.