Italy’s political crisis: Why now, and what happens next?

As Italy's latest political crisis threatens to destabilise the government in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, here's a look at why this is happening and the likely outcome.

Italy's political crisis: Why now, and what happens next?
Italian ex-PM and head of the 'Italia Viva' party, Matteo Renzi, holds a press conference at the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/POOL/AFP

Italia Viva, a minor party in Italy's coalition government, withdrew its ministers on Wednesday after weeks of simmering tensions

The move, long threatened by the party's leader, former premier Matteo Renzi, could spell the end of the current government which has been in place since 2019.

READ ALSO: Italian government faces crisis as ministers quit

Such crises are far from unusual in Italian politics. But as the country struggles with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, here's a look at why this is happening now, and what the outcome is likely to be.

Chronic instability

The latest crisis is focused on the political response to the pandemic, but it is yet another example of the chronic instability of Italian governments, which are often minority or built out of shaky partnerships.

Since the Italian republic was founded in 1946, Italy has had 29 prime ministers and 66 different governments – and Conte himself has led two since he took office in 2018.

The first comprised the M5S and Matteo Salvini's far-right League party. But when Salvini pulled his support in August 2019, Conte cobbled together another government comprised of three parties: the populist Five Star movement (M5S), the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and Renzi's Italia Viva

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (L) and former PM Matteo Renzi (R). AFP

EU recovery fund

Renzi has been criticising Conte for weeks over a range of issues but his attacks homed in on the government's 222-billion-euro post-virus recovery plan, largely paid for in grants and loans from a 750-billion-euro European Union fund.

Renzi accuses the prime minister of allying with the anti-establishment M5S and “squandering public money” on vote-winning tax breaks and hand-outs instead of using the windfall to invest in long-term structural reform.

He also wants Italy to use the eurozone's rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), which could bring in another 37 billion euros, ring-fenced for health spending.

The move is fiercely resisted by the M5S, who fear that seeking ESM help would force Italy to comply with strict austerity rules. EU officials have denied this.

Though there were concerns that Renzi's protests would delay the recovery fund, Conte's government received parliamentary approval for their plan on Wednesday.

Power games

The current political turmoil comes down to a contest between two quite different men.

On one side of the table is Conte, a 56-year-old law professor who has never held elected office and was once dubbed “Mr Nobody”, but has approval ratings well above his rivals following his handling of the pandemic.

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

On the other is 46-year-old senator Renzi, once the bright hope of the PD and prime minister from 2014 to 2016, who started his own Italia Viva party in 2019 but is now polling at just three percent.

Renzi insists he is motivated by a desire to see Italy prosper, but critics see it as sniping from the sidelines in an attempt to win more power in Conte's government.

One analyst described his overtures as a “game of poker” – but it has high stakes, with several politicians condemning Renzi for politicking in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic that has claimed almost 80,000 lives in Italy.

What happens now?

Conte could resign, there could be a reshuffle or even snap elections – all the options remain on the table as of Wednesday, although it is in the interests of all the ruling parties, including Italia Viva, to find a deal.

Conte said Renzi's move, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, had caused “considerable damage” to the country.
It appears to have left Conte's government without the working majority it needs in the Senate.
Conte's options now include calling a vote to see if he can gather support from a majority of lawmakers.
“At this stage, the outcome of this crisis is very uncertain. Elections do not look very likely at the moment, as some parties (such as Forza Italia and Italia Viva), which currently maintain a sizeable number of MPs would see their parliamentary power reduced in case of elections,” said Nicola Nobile, Italian economist at Oxford Economics.
More likely possible outcomes include “a cabinet reshuffle and Renzi’s party obtaining some more important seats”, the formation of a new government under Conte, or the current government continuing without Conte.
Opinion polls suggest that early elections would likely hand power to a coalition of right-wing parties, led by Matteo Salvini's League.

The leader of Italia Viva's senators, Davide Faraone, indicated Wednesday that the party had no intention of toppling the government, but called for a “new executive” and legislative programme.

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Who can vote in Italy’s elections?

With Italy's next general election scheduled for September 25th, who is eligible to vote - and how can those who are do so?

Who can vote in Italy's elections?

Who can vote in Italy?

For the upcoming election in September, the answer is simple: only Italian citizens are eligible to vote in Italy’s general elections.

Foreign EU nationals who are resident in Italy can register to vote in municipal and European parliamentary elections, but national elections are reserved for Italians only.

Until recently, not even all Italian adults could participate fully in the process: just last year, voters needed to be over the age of 25 to take part in senate elections.

That finally changed with a reform passed by parliament in July 2021. It’s now the case that any citizen over the age of 18 can vote for their representatives in both the lower house and the senate (both ballots are held at the same time).

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

You don’t need to be resident in Italy to vote; Italian citizens living abroad can register to vote via post.

In fact, Italy is unusual in assigning a set number of MPs and senators to ‘overseas constituencies’ that represent the interests of Italians abroad.

These constituencies are split into four territories: a) Europe; b) South America; c) Northern and Central America; d) Africa, Asia, Oceania and Antarctica. Each zone gets at least one MP and one senator, with the others distributed in proportion to the number of Italian residents.

Up until recently, there were as many as 12 MPs and six senators dedicated to overseas constituencies. This will drop to eight MPs and four senators from September, thanks to another reform enacted in late 2020.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

How can you vote?

While Italy has a postal vote option for citizens living abroad, Italians resident in Italy must vote in the town in which they are registered to vote (i.e., their comune, or municipality of residency), at the specific polling station assigned to them.

What's behind Italy's declining voter turnout?

Italian citizens who are resident in Italy can only vote in person. Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP.

The lack of a postal vote for Italians in Italy is thought to be one of the main factors behind Italy’s declining turnout in elections, and a parliamentary committee on elections has advised introducing one to help remedy the situation; but for now, only in-person votes count.

READ ALSO: What’s behind the decline in Italian voter turnout?

Italians living abroad who are on the electoral register should receive their ballot papers (pink for the Chamber of Deputies, yellow for the senate) from their consulate in the lead up to the election. Their completed ballots must arrive back at the consulate no later than 4pm local time on September 22nd.

Those who haven’t received their ballot papers by September 11th should contact their consulate to request that the documents be resent.

Italians in Italy must have a tessera elettorale, or voter’s card, to be allowed to vote in person. The card contains the holder’s full name, date of birth, address and polling station. Every time the holder goes to vote, the card – which takes the form of a piece of reinforced folded paper – is stamped.

The tessera elettorale should be automatically sent out to Italians at their home address when they reach the age of 18; for those who acquire citizenship and move to Italy later in life, it should be automatically sent to their address by the comune where they are registered as a resident.

If the tessera gets lost, damaged, or becomes filled up with stamps, the holder should request a new card from their comune. 

When an individual moves towns, they should turn in their tessera in order to receive a new one from their new comune. For those who move house but stay in the same town, their comune should send an official slip confirming the new address that can be used to update their tessera.

Anyone who hasn’t automatically received a tessera elettorale and is entitled to one should contact their comune to claim theirs.