Conte’s Options to Prevent Ally From Toppling Italy’s Government

Conte’s Options to Prevent Ally From Toppling Italy’s Government

January 4, 2021

A former Italian prime minister is threatening to topple the flimsy ruling coalition of the current premier, Giuseppe Conte. While tensions in the government are nothing new, the risk is that Matteo Renzi will follow through at the worst possible time.

Italy is battling a resurgence of the coronavirus, faces a crushing recession and has taken over the presidency of the Group of 20. Renzi accuses Conte of grabbing too much power and hates his plans on how to spend an estimated 196 billion euros ($241 million) from the European Union recovery package.

Renzi’s Italy Alive party is only a junior partner in a left-leaning government with the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party, but the numbers are so tight in parliament that by withdrawing his support he can trigger a vote of confidence in Conte, who does not lead any party and has not ever stood in an election.

Here is how the crisis could play out.

1. Shuffle the Decks

Conte rejigs a handful of top jobs, perhaps even offering Renzi the post of foreign minister or interior minister. Other Italy Alive lawmakers could also be brought in as undersecretaries or given key roles in managing EU funds. Renzi however insists that a reshuffle won’t be enough to appease him.

2. A Third Conte Government

If Renzi pulls the plug, it could get messy. Conte could be given the first shot at trying to form a viable coalition from President Sergio Mattarella, and it will almost certainly include a very similar set of political characters. Renzi’s group could be replaced by a handful of centrist and unaffiliated lawmakers.

Conte may have no power base of his own but he is riding high in opinion polls and that makes many lawmakers reluctant to dump him. If he’s essentially stitching back together the same coalition, he will need to show he’s giving up some control, possibly by appointing two deputy premiers from the two main forces.

3. Same Coalition, New Premier

Renzi has made no secret of his dislike of Conte, a former law professor who was plucked from obscurity back in 2018 by the anti-establishment Five Star to be their man at the helm of government. Senior Democrat lawmakers have also criticized the prime minister.

So the price for a new alliance could be to demand a different premier. Italian newspapers have speculated about possible replacements including PD leader Nicola Zingaretti, as well as Culture Minister Dario Franceschini, Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini and Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri, also from the PD.

4. Super Mario or Snap Vote

Over the past months, several political figures have looked to ex-European Central Bank head Mario Draghi as a savior-like figure who could step in as premier in a new coalition. Such a choice would require support across the political spectrum but the center-right opposition is split and some in Five Star are also not keen on a technocrat.

That raises the specter of early elections, which Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy is pressing for. Voters favor the center-right, opening a path for Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League to end up as premier.

It was precisely fear of this outcome that led to the formation of Conte’s second government back in September 2019. Five Star, though sinking in the polls, were willing to partner up with the Democrats to keep Salvini out and are desperately keen to avoid a snap vote that will further erode their numbers.

The window for early elections is also closing slowly. Mattarella’s term as president ends in February 2022 and he cannot dissolve parliament in the last six months of his mandate.

That means that if early elections are to be called, they need to happen before August this year.

— With assistance by Ross Larsen

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