Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has more than enough on his plate as he deals with the coronavirus pandemic, but he also faces the more immediate challenge of staying in office.
Despite a soaring Covid-19 death toll and with a deadline looming to come up with a plan to spend billions of euros in EU recovery funds, the government has been consumed for weeks by internal sniping from former prime minister Matteo Renzi.
Renzi has repeatedly threatened to withdraw his small but pivotal Italia Viva party from the centre-left coalition that Conte heads, which would force the government's collapse, in a row centred on the recovery fund.
“The situation is, in technical terms, a disaster,” the politician, who led Italy from 2014 to 2016, said in an interview with the Rete 4 channel broadcast late Monday.
Asked about the chances of Conte keeping his job, he said: “We'll see.”
Renzi has complained about various policies, including accusing Conte of setting spending priorities without enough consultation for
the 196 billion euros Italy expects to receive under the EU recovery plan.
Conte, a once-obscure law professor chosen as a compromise candidate for prime minister by the previous coalition government, has so far proven surprisingly adept at navigating the choppy waters of Italian politics.
He has been in office since 2018, first at the helm of a right-leaning administration comprising the M5S and the League.
That coalition collapsed a year later due to a power grab by league leader Matteo Salvini, but Conte stayed on at the head of a second coalition government between the M5S, PD and smaller allies.
Renzi's showdown with Conte is expected to come to a head in the coming days, when ministers meet to discuss the EU plans.
But does this sniping really mean anything for the stability of the Italian government?
Conte is expected by many commentators to try to placate Renzi with a cabinet reshuffle, either by persuading some ministers to step down, or by resigning himself to seek a new mandate from President Sergio Mattarella with a revised list of cabinet ministers.
The Italian media speculates that, aside from a reshuffle, a crisis could lead to Conte being reappointed to head a new government.
If Conte is ousted and politicians cannot agree on a successor, Mattarella could be forced to call snap elections – two years early.
Early elections would be nothing new or unusual in Italy.
But in any upcoming election, opinion polls point to likely victory for the right-wing opposition bloc, fronted by the anti-immigrant League.
End-of-year poll in Italy showing:
Despite huge volatility (one third of voters happy to switch party), voters continue to move predominantly within their “blocks”: right wing or centre-left.https://t.co/IMYSByDEBb
— Daniele Albertazzi (@DrAlbertazziUK) January 3, 2021
Renzi's party meanwhile would risk being wiped out – they are currently polling at around three percent.
Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the Teneo consultancy firm, said he expects a re-ordering of the coalition parties but for Conte to stay in power.
“The strength of the ruling coalition in Italy is its weakness — they know they cannot afford elections,” he told AFP. “I don't think this crisis will yield anything particularly meaningful.”
“It will just be another waste of time at the worst time possible for the country.”