Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is battling to keep afloat after a coalition partner party withdrew from the government, a move that has caused a political crisis in the middle of the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
Legislators have called on Conte to set out his next steps following the dramatic exit of former premier Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva party on Wednesday evening.
The speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, Roberto Fico, suspended Thursday’s regular proceedings and said he would call a meeting of all party chiefs.
“I will contact Conte for the request to come to the chamber,” he said. “This house is not and cannot be indifferent to what is happening.”
Renzi has presented a list of grievances, criticising how Conte had handled the pandemic and accusing him of hoarding power.
However, the former prime minister’s group has left open the door to returning so long as a new policy deal could be worked out.
“It isn’t a question of who [is in charge], but of what is done,” Elena Bonetti, one of Italia Viva’s two outgoing ministers, told Radio 24.
Since Renzi quit, Conte has not made a public comment or given any indication that he was ready to hand in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella.
Conte weighs response
One of the options open to him would be to try to cobble together a group of so-called “responsible” parliamentarians from opposition ranks, who would promise to prop up his government in the absence of Italia Viva.
“Conte wants to go to parliament and see if he can’t build an alternative majority there,” a government official, who declined to be named, told Reuters news agency.
To do this, he would need to find around 25 lawmakers in the 630-seat lower house and up to 18 in the 315-seat Senate. However, such a majority would be highly fragile and make it hard to enact meaningful reform.
Failing that he will need to swallow his pride and look to forge a new alliance with Renzi, one of Italy’s most ruthless politicians, whose party is floundering in the polls – but a survey published in Wednesday’s Corriere della Sera newspaper suggested there was little public support for this route.
Seventy-three percent of those polled said Renzi was acting out of self-interest, rather than that of the country. Asked to take sides, 55 percent preferred Conte, with just 10 percent backing Renzi.
Italian media reported that Conte would try to delay taking action for a few days, while pushing through new aid for businesses hit by coronavirus shutdowns.
Italy’s often volatile markets were little changed in early trade on Thursday, thanks largely to the European Central Bank’s large-scale purchases of Italian assets, which have protected investors from the hostile economic and political winds.
Far right poised to take advantage
But the mellow mood could change if the crisis leads to an early general election, in which some observers say a eurosceptic bloc headed by Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party might gain.
The political drama comes against the backdrop of the coronavirus contagion, which is killing hundreds of people each day and has plunged Italy into its worst recession since World War II.
One of Renzi’s main complaints about Conte is the way he has handled plans to spend up to 200 billion euros ($243bn) of European Union funds meant to help rebuild the country, accusing him of trying to bypass parliament in the decision-making.
Renzi has also said Conte must accept up to 36 billion euros ($44bn) offered by the EU in a separate bailout fund for the health system. No other EU country has tapped this mechanism amid fears the cash will come with unwelcome conditions.
European Affairs Minister Vincenzo Amendola, a member of the coalition centre-left Democratic Party (PD), warned that Italy risked missing out on funds.
“All my European colleagues are very worried,” he told Sky Italia TV.