Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has won a crucial confidence vote in Parliament’s lower house, hanging on to power after a junior partner quit his coalition and sparked a political crisis amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Conte lost his coalition majority last week with the defection of cabinet ministers belonging to former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s small but key Italia Viva party, a decision that followed weeks of criticism of the government’s economic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following an appeal to opposition and non-aligned lawmakers for “clear backing”, Conte’s government won on Monday the lower-house vote by 321 to 259, a wider-than-expected margin that gave it an absolute majority in the 629-seat chamber.
Conte will face a tougher test on Tuesday in the upper house Senate, where the government had only a slim majority even when Italia Viva was still part of the coalition.
Conte insists his coalition, formed in September 2019 and comprising mainly the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and populist Five Star Movement (M5S), could carry on without Renzi. But even if the government survives in terms of numbers in Parliament, Renzi’s party pullout last week highlighted the coalition’s fragility.
Renzi has long criticised Conte’s handling of the pandemic, from the months-long closure of high schools to support for small businesses threatened with closure.
Conte, a former law professor who has never himself been elected, told Parliament his government had acted with the “utmost care”, taking “decisive action” where needed.
New measures were introduced on Sunday, with shops and restaurants shut and residents urged to stay at home in a number of regions.
Italy has been among the European nations worst-affected by the pandemic and is one of the main beneficiaries of a 750 billion-euro ($906bn) European Union economic recovery fund.
But Renzi has accused the government of wasting the opportunity, judging its 220 billion-euro ($266bn) plan for EU funds too focused on vote-winning handouts instead of addressing long-term structural issues. He has also been calling for Italy to make use of the eurozone’s rescue fund – the European Stability Mechanism – a move fiercely resisted by the M5S, which fears it would bring with it tough conditions on public spending.
Conte amended the recovery plan following Renzi’s criticisms, but the Italia Viva politician said Monday it was “still not working”.
Opinion polls suggest if the current turmoil leads to snap elections, a right-wing coalition including the anti-immigration, anti-European League party would take power.
Conte urged legislators from “the highest European tradition – liberal, popular and socialist” to support the government.
“Did we always take the best decisions? Everyone can make their evaluations,” Conte told the lower house. “For my part, I can say the government worked with the utmost care and attention for the delicate balances, including constitutional ones,” while keeping in mind the heavy implications for Italians.
The prime minister expressed perplexity at the political crisis for which he saw “no plausible basis” at a moment when the pandemic, which has killed more than 82,000 people in the country, was “still in full course”.
He said the developments in Rome had provoked “deep dismay” in the country when the priority should be fighting the virus and relaunching the economy.
During the debate, Conte conceded one point of contention, saying he would give up the secret services portfolio. But he also made clear it would be hard to mend fences with Renzi, who has faced harsh criticism for the power play during the pandemic.
“We can’t forget what has happened, and you can’t think of regaining the climate of trust,” Conte said.
Italia Viva Member of Parliament Ivan Scalfarotto accused Conte of setting up too many task forces during the pandemic, and not taking enough action.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from Rome, said many in the country were seemingly against the prospect of early elections at a time when “the country is trying deal with coronavirus with a fresh lockdown”.
Conte, a lawyer by training, hailed for his mediation skills, was tapped by M5S to run the government after an indecisive 2018 election led to a governing coalition of the party with a right-wing group led by League party leader Matteo Salvini.
That government fell when Salvini, then interior minister, mounted a failed power grab.
Conte was able to form a new government with the support of the PD, which at the time also included Renzi, who later defected from the party he once ran.