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Battle over early elections grips Italy in limbo

A fight over whether to hold early elections gripped Italy on Tuesday after Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's resignation left the eurozone's third largest economy in political limbo.

Battle over early elections grips Italy in limbo
File photo of Renzi with president Sergio Mattarella: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Renzi's exit on Monday after a crushing referendum defeat over constitutional reforms unleashed the political hounds, with all parties vying to take advantage of the power vacuum.

“Italy is now entering into troubled waters,” Giovanni Orsina, political science professor at the Luiss University in Rome, told AFP.

US President Barack Obama on Tuesday called Renzi from Air Force One, thanking Renzi “for the close friendship and partnership the leaders enjoyed” during his tenure as prime minister, the White House said.

“The president emphasized that Italy will remain one of the United States' closest and strongest allies and an indispensable partner,” it said in a statement.

Across the political spectrum in Italy meanwhile, parties were plotting the next move in a high-stakes game with the country's top job as prize.

Renzi, 41, has been asked by the president to stay on for a few days to pass the 2017 budget in a bid to reassure Europe and the markets that the heavily debt-laden country is not the eurozone's next nightmare.

The government has already won a vote of confidence on the budget in the lower house of parliament, but needs the senate's nod.

After that, President Sergio Mattarella will consult with party leaders before naming a new prime minister, though whoever it is will have to have the backing of Renzi's centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

The crisis could see the 2018 elections brought forward by a year and potentially see the populist Five Star movement – which wants a referendum on quitting the euro – seize power.

'Too many unknowns'

Italy's mainstream parties on the left and right share a common interest in keeping the Five Stars out, but disagree on how to do it. The issue is complicated by the fact that a recent reform to the electoral law only applies to the lower house of parliament now that the constitutional reform bid has failed.

As a result an election now would create different majorities in the upper and lower house, scuppering any possible government.

“There are many forces in play, pulling in different directions,” Orsina said.

Renzi wants elections as soon as possible to prevent potential competitors from growing stronger, while the Five Stars and the anti-immigrant Northern League party are also keen to vote early and capitalize on the “No” vote momentum, he said.

But parts of Renzi's PD, Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia party and centrists are against a vote for fear of losing, he added.

“What we'll have now is a compromise with an ambiguous government which at the start will present itself as a simple bridge government to take the country to elections in three or four months, but which could strengthen over time,” he said.

The Five Stars said the Italians had “expressed a clear political signal” that they want elections as soon as possible, and founder Beppe Grillo said the party would begin forming a policy platform and a cabinet team next week.

Northern League leader Matteo Salvini also urged an early ballot, saying “real change happens only through electoral victory”.

But editorialist Massimo Franco for the Corriere della Sera daily said “no-one is ready to bet on the date of the election,” warning there were “too many unknowns” at play for Italians to be rushed back to the polls.

Renzi is expected to seek the support of the PD to remain party leader, a role that would give him a say on who replaces him.

Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan is widely tipped for the PM post, as is senate speaker and ex-mafia hunter Pietro Grasso.

Whoever is chosen will become the fourth successive head of government to be appointed rather than elected.

By Ella Ide

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COVID-19 RULES

Italy eases Covid measures ahead of new government

Italy's outgoing government is easing measures against coronavirus from Saturday despite an increase in cases, weeks before handing over to a far-right administration that has criticised the tough restrictions.

Italy eases Covid measures ahead of new government

Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s government said it would not renew regulations requiring FFP2 face masks to be worn on public transport – these expired on Friday.

However, it has extended for another month the requirement to wear face masks in hospitals and other healthcare settings, as well as residential facilities for the elderly.

READ ALSO:  Why are so many Italians still wearing face masks in shops?

By the time that rule expires on October 31, a new government led by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni is expected to be in place — with a very different attitude to Covid-19 restrictions than Draghi’s.

Italy was the first European country to face the full force of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, and has had some of the toughest restrictions.

Last winter, it required certain categories of workers to be vaccinated and demanded proof of a negative test, recent recovery from the virus or vaccination — the so-called Green pass — to enter public places.

READ ALSO: What is Italy’s Covid vaccination plan this autumn?

The pass was strongly criticised by Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, which swept to a historic victory in elections on Sunday.

“We are against this certificate, full stop,” the party’s head of health policy, Marcello Gemmato, La Repubblica newspaper on Friday.

He said it gave “false security” because even after vaccination, people could get and spread coronavirus.

Gemmato said vaccines should be targeted at older people and those with health problems, but not be obligatory, adding that the requirement for healthcare workers to be vaccinated would not be renewed when it expires at
the end of the year.

READ ALSO: Italy gives green light to new dual-strain Covid vaccines

Cases of coronavirus are rising slightly again in Italy, likely due to the return of schools and universities.

More than 177,000 people with coronavirus have died in Italy since the start of the pandemic.

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