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Early elections or ‘waste of time’? What does Italy’s latest political crisis mean?

With former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi threatening to bring down the coalition government, does a snap election in 2021 really look likely?

Early elections or 'waste of time'? What does Italy's latest political crisis mean?
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Photo: Andrew Medichini/POOL/AFP

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.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus crisis 'strengthens' Italian PM Conte at home and abroad

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.

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.”

Member comments

  1. A right wing victory, Renzi destroyed,Conte sent packing ,it sounds like great news ,fingers crossed.

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ITALIAN POLITICS

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Italy’s government was plunged into turmoil on Tuesday as foreign minister Luigi Di Maio announced he was leaving his party to start a breakaway group.

Italian government rocked by Five Star party split

Di Maio said his decision to leave the Five Star Movement (M5S) – the party he once led – was due to its “ambiguity” over Italy’s support of Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

He accused the party’s current leader, former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, of undermining the coalition government’s efforts to support Ukraine and weakening Italy’s position within the EU.

“Today’s is a difficult decision I never imagined I would have to take … but today I and lots of other colleagues and friends are leaving the Five Star Movement,” Di Maio told a press conference on Tuesday.

“We are leaving what tomorrow will no longer be the first political force in parliament.”

His announcement came after months of tensions within the party, which has lost most of the popular support that propelled it to power in 2018 and risks being wiped out in national elections due next year.

The split threatens to bring instability to Draghi’s multi-party government, formed in February 2021 after a political crisis toppled the previous coalition.

As many as 60 former Five Star lawmakers have already signed up to Di Maio’s new group, “Together for the Future”, media reports said.

Di Maio played a key role in the rise of the once anti-establishment M5S, but as Italy’s chief diplomat he has embraced Draghi’s more pro-European views.

READ ALSO: How the rebel Five Star Movement joined Italy’s establishment

Despite Italy’s long-standing political and economic ties with Russia, Draghi’s government has taken a strongly pro-NATO stance, sending weapons and cash to help Ukraine while supporting EU sanctions against Russia.

Di Maio backed the premier’s strong support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion, including sending weapons for Kyiv to defend itself.

In this he has clashed with the head of Five Star, former premier Giuseppe Conte, who argues that Italy should focus on a diplomatic solution.

Di Maio attacked his former party without naming Conte, saying: “In these months, the main political force in parliament had the duty to support the diplomacy of the government and avoid ambiguity. But this was not the case,” he said.

Luigi Di Maio (R) applauds after Prime Minister Mario Draghi (L) addresses the Italian Senate on June 21st, 2022. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

“In this historic moment, support of European and Atlanticist values cannot be a mistake,” he added.

The Five Star Movement, he said, had risked the stability of the government “just to try to regain a few percentage points, without even succeeding”.

But a majority of lawmakers – including from the Five Star Movement – backed Draghi’s approach in March and again in a Senate vote on Tuesday.

Draghi earlier on Tuesday made clear his course was set.

“Italy will continue to work with the European Union and with our G7 partners to support Ukraine, to seek peace, to overcome this crisis,” he told the Senate, with Di Maio at his side.

“This is the mandate the government has received from parliament, from you. This is the guide for our action.”

The Five Star Movement stormed to power in 2018 general elections after winning a third of the vote on an anti-establishment ticket, and stayed in office even after Draghi was parachuted in to lead Italy in February 2021.

But while it once threatened to upend the political order in Italy, defections, policy U-turns and dismal polling have left it struggling for relevance.

“Today ends the story of the Five Star Movement,” tweeted former premier Matteo Renzi, who brought down the last Conte government by withdrawing his support.

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