CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) — Italy entered a new phase of political upheaval on Tuesday after a clash of personalities and objectives inside the center-left governing coalition led to the resignation of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and left a struggling nation rudderless at a time of grave national crisis.
Despite praise for his handling of the coronavirus crisis, Conte, an unelected law professor who emerged as Italy's prime minister from out of nowhere in 2018, was compelled to hand in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella on Tuesday morning in a preemptive move to stave off legislative defeat.
His resignation opens the way for talks on the formation of a new coalition government to lead Italy through what will be one of its most difficult years since the end of World War II.
At the end of February last year, Italy was the first nation outside China to discover to its horror that the novel coronavirus was spreading out of control in towns and cities in the Po Valley, Italy's economic heartland between Milan and Venice. Since then, Italy's economy has sunk into depression and more than 85,000 people have died in the pandemic.
Already saddled with huge public debt and struggling to adjust economically to a digitalized and globalized world, Italy is considered one of the European Union's most fragile members and, given the size of its economy and importance as a founding member of the bloc, it is seen as a major risk to the entire EU system should it fall into a severe economic crisis, such as a debt default. This new political crisis, therefore, is being closely watched across Europe.
On Wednesday, Mattarella and Italy's political parties are set to begin talks on how to get past the impasse. Possible solutions include seeing Conte at the head of a new coalition, a new prime minister being appointed, and even new early elections.
Conte has overseen two coalition governments since he was appointed prime minister in 2018 following national elections that turned Italy's political landscape upside down. The winners of that election, the left-leaning direct-democracy 5-Star Movement and the nationalist far-right League, formed an unlikely alliance.
The first coalition collapsed after the League's leader, Matteo Salvini, blundered by dropping out of the coalition in a botched bid to force new elections in the summer of 2019. Riding high in national polls on his anti-immigrant and tough-on-crime rhetoric, Salvini sensed electoral success was within his grasp.
Instead, the 5-Star Movement did the unexpected: It allied itself with its former nemesis, the establishment center-left Democratic Party, and the Conte 2.0 government was born.
Once again, though, frictions and antagonisms within the coalition have caused Conte's government to collapse. This time, another power-hungry politician named Matteo is behind this second fall of Conte.
Two weeks ago, former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi withdrew his support for Conte, saying he could not support Conte's handling of billions of dollars in EU coronavirus recovery funds. Renzi accused Conte of setting up a system for disbursing the funds that is too concentrated in the hands of technocrats with no parliamentary oversight.
But many analysts are speculating that Renzi's true motives are more selfish and include bolstering his political ambitions – badly bruised since his ill-fated premiership ended in 2016 – and even sabotaging efforts by the 5-Star Movement to obtain a legislative win by passing criminal justice reforms.
The government collapsed just days before the parliament was set to debate legislation to make it harder to use generous statute of limitation laws to avoid prison. With trials and legal appeals often taking years, thousands of criminal cases are thrown out for exceeding the statute of limitations while they are still winding their way through the court system.
Renzi, the leader of the small Italia Viva party he spun off from the Democratic Party, was expected to not vote for the pending legislation to tighten the statute of limitation laws.
“A lot of people in Italy, especially the political class, have problems with this because, you know, who knows: it may affect themselves, or people they know or their families,” said Wolfgang Munchau, the head of EuroIntelligence, a political risk firm based in the United Kingdom, in a recent briefing about the Italian political crisis. “A lot of Italian politicians have had conflicts with the law: Silvio Berlusconi famously; Matteo Salvini, Renzi's father. There has been a constant stream of criminal trials against Italian politicians. Italy is quite unique in that respect. So any reform of the criminal justice system is inherently political.”
These reforms are viewed as a must-win piece of legislation for the 5-Star Movement, which came into power on a platform of fighting corruption. Thus, faced with the possibility of a major legislative defeat, the 5-Stars and Conte decided to pull the plug on the coalition government and gamble on finding new partners with which to form a government.
Conte is not a 5-Star member but he was chosen by the party as a consensus-building independent prime minister. Conte has been rumored to be considering forming his own party, which complicates the situation even further.
Some analysts say the 5-Stars now see Conte as a threat because he has become popular thanks to his efficient handling of the pandemic and wish to see him replaced as prime minister.
“I do not see a third Conte” government, Munchau said.
For now, the 5-Stars and the Democratic Party are looking to persuade unaffiliated centrists in parliament to join their coalition. There is even speculation that Berlusconi's center-right party, Forza Italia, might be willing to join a coalition. That outcome though, remains remote because Berlusconi – the business magnate and former prime minister – will likely not want to antagonize his allies on the right, the League and the Brothers of Italy.
Early elections are viewed as an unlikely outcome because the 5-Stars would likely get pummeled.
“They have a lot to lose if there were elections. They absolutely oppose elections,” Munchau said.
The 5-Stars came out of the 2018 elections as the largest party after picking up about 33% of the vote. But the party's popularity has sank and some polls show it picking up only 10% of the vote now. Polls show Italy's right-wing parties winning a majority if elections were held.
“Elections are improbable, but not impossible,” said Giovanni Orsina, the director of the school of government at the Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome, on Sky television.
Naturally, Salvini and others on the right are calling for new elections, arguing that Italy needs a stable government at this time of crisis.
“What we're witnessing is an embarrassment,” said Claudio Durigon, a member with the League, on Sky. “Italy needs a government with a very clear agenda. Italy and Italians need a strong government.”
“We sometimes call Italian politics the snake pit,” Munchau said. “It's also very hard to forecast, there are many unforeseeable things that happen.”
The collapse of Conte's coalition marked the end of Italy's 66th government since the end of World War II.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.
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