Three ministers have resigned from Italy’s governing coalition, plunging the government into crisis and threatening the future of prime minister Giuseppe Conte.
Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister and leader of the small Italia Viva party, said that three ministers from Italia Viva would resign from Mr Conte’s coalition on Wednesday, after weeks of sustained criticism of the government’s handling of the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The three Italia Viva ministers who are resigning are Teresa Bellanova, agriculture minister; Elena Bonetti, family minster; and Ivan Scalfarotto, a junior minister for foreign affairs.
“There will be a reason if Italy is the country that has the highest number of deaths and a collapse in GDP,” Mr Renzi said, blaming the government’s handling of the pandemic for the resignations.
“It is much more difficult to leave your position than to cling to the status quo,” he said, arguing that his decision was in the best interests of the country. “The political crisis has not been started by Italia Viva, it has been going on for months.”
Earlier in the day Mr Conte had met Italy’s president and head of state Sergio Mattarella, and said that a government crisis now would be punished by voters.
“I believe that a crisis would not be understood by the country at a time when there are so many challenges,” he said. He had also said before Mr Renzi’s announcement that he had been attempting to forge a new agreement with his small coalition party.
Mr Conte may now need to seek permission from Mr Mattarella to attempt to form a new government without lawmakers from Mr Renzi’s party. To do this he will need to win over members of other small parties or possibly breakaway members of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
If Mr Conte is unable to assemble a new majority then it is possible Mr Mattarella will pave the way for a new government to be formed without him. Early elections, which only the Italian president has the power to call, are unlikely to take place during the pandemic, and are likely only to be called once all other options in the Italian parliament have been exhausted.
Italia Viva was formed last year in a breakaway from the ruling centre-left Democratic party (PD) after Mr Renzi had been integral in pushing the PD into a coalition with the Five Star Movement, allowing Mr Conte to continue as prime minister following the collapse of the last Italian coalition.
Since then, however, Mr Renzi has become a fierce critic of the prime minister, arguing that his plans to spend about €180bn from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund are inadequate.
Mr Conte, who was an obscure law professor before being picked to lead Italy’s previous governing coalition between Five Star and Matteo Salvini’s League in 2018, has no political party of his own. As a result, he may struggle to justify continuing as prime minister should a new coalition need to be formed.
He now faces a scramble to find enough lawmakers to restore the majority in Italy’s upper house that he was deprived of when Mr Renzi’s IV senators withdrew their support.
Yet even if he manages to do so, the upshot could be a weakened government at a moment of acute national crisis.
“If Conte finds enough parliamentarians to offset the outflow of the Renzi-ites, the next question will be, yes Conte is alive, but what kind of life we are speaking about?” said Francesco Galietti of the risk consultancy Policy Sonar. “His government would then be very weak.”
Some coalition lawmakers criticised Mr Renzi for orchestrating a government crisis in the middle of a pandemic. “A grave error made by a few that we will all end up paying for,” said Andrea Orlando, deputy leader of the Democratic party.