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27 January 2021updated 12 Oct 2023 10:35am

Will Giuseppe Conte’s resignation lead to a political shift in Italy?

The economic crisis has increased the likelihood of what the former Italian PM calls a “government of national salvation”.   

By David Broder

The formation of governments in Italy doesn’t necessarily have much to do with voting. The 66 administrations that have been and gone since the Second World War were mostly reshuffles of similar coalitions; only twice since 1945 has a general election led to a direct exchange of power between left and right. But no previous premier has ever achieved what Giuseppe Conte did 18 months ago: remaining prime minister while switching to a politically opposite coalition. His resignation yesterday (26 January), designed to give him a mandate to form a new administration, is unlikely to be the end of his career, even if he cannot form a third government.

From June 2018 Conte served as the independent head of an “all-populist” government, uniting the eclectic Five Star Movement (M5S) with the hard-right Lega. The latter’s withdrawal in August 2019, however, led the prime minister to bring the centre-left Democrats and the more leftist Free and Equal group into his coalition.

Since then, the 56-year-old’s reputation has soared among those seeking broadly progressive leadership. When first chosen as prime minister in 2018, the hitherto little-known law professor was widely considered a puppet of the ruling parties: he was not a member of any party and had no parliamentary base of his own (Conte was even filmed asking then-M5S leader Luigi Di Maio to tell him what he was allowed to say). Yet after he formed a second administration two summers ago, uniting M5S with the centre left, Conte has become a more respected figure, indeed something of an idol.

That he needs to now form a new administration is mainly due to former premier Matteo Renzi, who two weeks ago pulled his centrist Italia Viva party out of Conte’s government. Renzi, who was Democratic prime minister from 2014 to 2016, split away to form Italia Viva in summer 2019, hoping to emulate French president Emmanuel Macron in starting a new movement centred around himself. But the party immediately faced a struggle for relevance and is polling under 3 per cent. Having nonetheless attracted a sizeable group of Democratic legislators, Italia Viva was decisive for Conte’s Senate majority; the apparent logic of Renzi’s move was to use this leverage to force a political turn, replacing Conte with a more fiscally hawkish figure such as former European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, and further weakening the influence of M5S.

Renzi’s exit from Conte’s coalition was ridiculed across the political spectrum; former premier Massimo D’Alema described it as “the most unpopular man in Italy trying to sack the most popular”. Opponents derided Renzi’s move as a bid for attention, and one especially absurd in view of Italy’s struggles with Covid-19.

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Rather than resigning immediately, Conte last week tabled a vote of confidence, in which he sought support both from some opposition senators (known as the “responsibles”) and the ragbag of small parties and M5S expellees known as the “Mixed Group”. Faced with a trickle of defections to Conte’s side from both Italia Viva and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Renzi then announced that his party would abstain – with the result that the government survived, albeit without an absolute majority in the Senate.

This was not a stable basis on which to continue. An annual report by the justice minister, Alfonso Bonafede (of M5S), that was due to face a parliamentary vote on Thursday (28 January) was a particular obstacle: Italia Viva opposes Bonafede’s plans to speed up Italy’s elephantine judicial process, and its stance would have forced the government’s collapse. M5S has long focused on attacking political corruption via “giustizialismo” (a call for faster, harsher justice), a stance that is also unpopular among the rather dubious Christian-Democratic and Berlusconian forces who may help Conte form a new majority.

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Many “responsibles” are said to have told Conte that they would support him on condition that he resign and form a wholly new administration – perhaps as a way of pushing aside the M5S justice minister.

But there is also a wider realignment taking place. Ahead of the Senate confidence vote, Conte emphasised that his government majority was held together by Europeanism and opposition to “nationalists and those with sovereignist aspirations”. Today, he is seeking to form a group of senators committed to this politics and attached to him personally – one that can give him a majority, even if Italia Viva does not return.

Polls suggest that a hypothetical “party of Conte” would have a vote of share of around 10 per cent; the defection to Conte of Berlusconian legislators such as former Lazio region president Renata Polverini shows that the more pro-EU sections of the centre right could even provide him with support.

Yet this raises other difficulties, not least as the first-past-the-post system used in regional and national elections favours permanent electoral coalitions with opposing centre-left and centre-right blocs. Some opposition senators that Conte tapped up as “responsibles”, such as the Christian Democrat Clemente Mastella, have erratically swapped between the two sides.

If early elections are held, the centre right appears almost certain to win: Matteo Salvini’s Lega and the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia together command almost 40 per cent in national polls, with Berlusconi’s party adding another 10 per cent. The octogenarian billionaire has in recent years recast himself as an “anti-populist”, and has mooted the creation of a government representing “substantial national unity”. The qualifier “substantial” alarmed his hard-right allies, however, who considered it a sign that he is considering backing a pro-EU grand coalition, often called an “Ursula” pact (after EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen).

[See also: How Silvio Berlusconi became Italy’s kingmaker]

That a coalition named after Von der Leyen could include both Berlusconi and the “anti-corruption” M5S may seem absurd. Yet the drastic economic situation is also likely to force the creation of a government that spans the political spectrum: the most recent European Central Bank bulletin highlighted that Italy’s budget deficit was among those over 7.5 per cent. And with the bank’s president Christine Lagarde warning that current fiscal stimulus should be targeted on the pandemic response itself, we should expect sharp austerity to follow, which will intensify the clamour for what Conte calls a “government of national salvation”.

The party today most ardently demanding “national unity” is M5S. While at the 2018 election it won 32.7 per cent of the vote, it is today polling less than half of that and, desperate to avoid early elections, has long since abandoned its once-virulent opposition to cross-party deals. Despite a residual Euroscepticism among its parliamentary cohort – it is still not an organic part of the “centre left” – it can be expected to join almost any opportunistic alliance.

The effects of Conte’s resignation are unpredictable – it could produce anything from a national unity government to early elections or a Salvini premiership. Yet precedent would suggest a high chance of some sort of “transformist” combination, perhaps fronted by technocrats. Since the early 1990s, and in particular since the 2008 financial crisis, unelected institutional figures have often been used to push through unpopular measures. After being appointed premier in 2018, Conte was himself meant to be nothing but a figurehead. The coming days will decide if he is more than that.

[See also: Italy in the wake of coronavirus]