Global Affairs

Italian PM Conte resigns as coalition government crumbles

On the morning of Tuesday, the 26th of January, centrist Giuseppe Conte, the Italian Prime Minister, announced his resignation at a cabinet meeting before formally handing it in to President Sergio Mattarella. This adds to two weeks of instability after former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pulled the support of his party, liberal Italia Viva (IV), from the governing coalition led by the populist Five Star Movement (5SM) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

After unrelenting criticism towards the government’s economic response to the coronavirus pandemic, the withdrawal of IV’s support along with the resignation of its three ministers (Minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova, Minister for Family and Equal Opportunities Elena Bonetti, and Foreign Affairs junior minister Ivan Scalfarotto) threatened the stability of the coalition and forced the government to go through a vote of confidence last week.

Mr Renzi was Prime Minister from 2014 to 2016 and led the PD from 2013 to 2018. He was 39 years old upon assuming office, making him the youngest-ever Italian PM, but resigned following a 2016 referendum that defeated his proposed constitutional reform. After stepping down as Prime Minister, he had an instrumental role in forming the current coalition between the 5SM and the PD after the collapse of the first Conte government, which was a coalition between the 5SM and the far-right League. That was no small feat; it is worth noting that the Five Star Movement, a populist, Eurosceptic and anti-establishment party, was often at odds with the liberal, metropolitan and Europhile PD. He then left the PD in 2019, founding IV, a junior member in the 5SM-PD coalition. He’s been a fierce critic of Mr Conte’s government, in particular of the economic response to what is shaping up to be Italy’s worst recession since World War II. Mr Renzi has demanded more money to be spent on education, health and culture. Mr Conte extended an olive branch earlier this month by making some significant changes to the recovery plan’s draft, more than doubling the planned allocations for health and culture, from €9 billion to €19.7 billion and from €3.1 billion to €8 billion, respectively, while also increasing education funds from €28.5 billion to €19.2 billion, according to Politico.

However, another main point of contention between Mr Conte and Mr Renzi remains: the use of funds from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). The 5SM are fundamentally opposed to borrowing funds from the ESM, which they see as a hallmark of austerity policies. In fact, dismantling the entire scheme has been a core element of their manifesto. In contrast, the IV believe those funds should be used to improve health care. “I am not available to be complicit in the greatest waste of public money in the history of the republic”, Renzi told Rai3 TV on January 12th. He withdrew IV from the coalition government the day after.

Both the PD and the 5SM were quick to support Mr Conte, who then sought unaffiliated left-leaning and Europhile MPs to bolster his coalition. After a passionate speech on the January 18th, in which he appealed for the support of parliamentarians from “pro-European, liberal, of the people, socialist” forces, Mr Conte comfortably won a vote of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies, Italy’s lower house of parliament, where the coalition still holds a majority.

However, IV’s withdrawal from the coalition means Mr Conte’s government loses its majority in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, as the support of IV’s 18 senators can no longer be counted upon. On January 19th, the governing coalition narrowly won the vote of confidence in the Senate by 156 to 140, short of the 161 required for an absolute majority and with 16 abstentions, including most of IV’s senators.

Mr Conte’s governing coalition was severely weakened, despite surviving the vote. Without an absolute majority, it becomes near impossible for the government to pass meaningful legislation or approve the annual budget. With an important vote on judicial reforms later this week, Mr Conte’s resignation is seen as avoiding a humiliating parliamentary defeat. President Mattarella is unlikely to call snap elections, considering the difficulty of holding them during a pandemic, so Mr Conte is likely betting that he’ll be able to form a new coalition by enticing Mr Renzi back in or reshuffling his parliamentary support entirely.

President Mattarella’s office confirmed that Mr Conte’s government will remain in place as he begins consultations with leaders of the several political parties. If Mr Conte cannot form a new coalition, President Mattarella will see whether another leader could achieve a parliamentary majority. Another possibility is a government of “national unity”, bringing together the current coalition and the right-wing opposition, something former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi suggested his Forza Italia (FI) could be available for.

Coalition figures have rallied behind Mr Conte, with Nicola Zingaretti, leader of the PD, speaking out in support of a “new government with Conte that is clearly pro-European and supported by a broad parliamentary base” and Vito Crimi, acting leader of the 5SM, pledging to be “by Conte’s side in this very difficult time for the country”.

Opposition figures, like Mr Conte’s former coalition partner and ex-Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini, of the far-right League, have demanded new elections in order to “give the say back to the people”. The League currently leads in the polls, and a right-wing coalition of Mr Berlusconi’s FI, Mr Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy could secure a majority (a January 25th poll gives them 48% of the votes).

Nevertheless, this is not Mr Conte’s first political rodeo, and certainly not an anomaly in the stormy political climate of post-war Italy. After all, this is the 66th government since 1946, at an average of a government every 1.14 years.

Mr Conte is a former law professor who had no party and no political experience before being plucked from obscurity to serve as Prime Minister in 2018. With more votes and a larger share of the seats, the 5SM had the right to choose the Prime Minister, but then-leader Luigi di Maio was unacceptable to Mr Salvini, so Mr Conte was a compromise choice. He was widely seen as a figurehead, and Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt once called him a “puppet”.

The 5SM/League coalition fell in 2019, when Mr Salvini resigned as Minister of the Interior and withdrew his support from the coalition, attempting to force new elections, in a move not unlike Mr Renzi’s. However, Mr Salvini was outmanoeuvred by Mr Conte, who maintained support from the 5SM and secured a coalition with the PD. In doing so, he turned his government from a right-leaning coalition to a more liberal, Europhile and left-leaning one, showing considerable political shrewdness by remaining in power despite lacking his own party.

The independent technocratic academic is now just over four months from becoming the 7th Italian Prime Minister to hold office for more than three years since the war. If he lasts that long, that is.

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Originally from Portugal, Duarte is a Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is currently in his second year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Peter's College.