Italian PM Conte resigns as ally pulls out

Country faces political uncertainty even as it grapples with Covid-19 outbreak, recession

Mr Giuseppe Conte is angling for a new mandate to form his third government in four years.
Mr Giuseppe Conte is angling for a new mandate to form his third government in four years.

ROME • Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned yesterday after losing his Senate majority, plunging the country into political uncertainty amid its battle with the coronavirus and a recession.

Weakened by the defection of a junior partner, Mr Conte has offered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, a statement from the President's office said.

The head of state, who oversees attempts to forge new governments, is expected to start a round of talks with party leaders before he nominates someone to forge a fresh coalition.

Mr Conte is angling for a new mandate to form what would be his third government in four years.

His plan, said officials familiar with his thinking, is to forge a broader alliance including pro-European centrists and unaffiliated lawmakers, and possibly even bring back some members of former premier Matteo Renzi's Italy Alive party, who abandoned his second administration this month.

For the 56-year-old Mr Conte, a lawyer plucked from Florence academia to head his first government in 2018, it is the second time he has seen his coalition fall apart.

When Mr Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League abandoned Mr Conte in 2019, the Premier replaced him with the centre-left Democratic Party.

This time around, the Democrats and Mr Conte's main allies, the Five Star Movement, are divided even internally on whether or not to negotiate with Mr Renzi, with many believing he cannot be trusted after sniping at the coalition for months and then pulling out, the officials said.

After fighting for two weeks to shore up his position, Mr Conte's hand was forced by the prospect of losing a Senate vote on the judiciary due as soon as today.

A defeat there would have damaged his authority and reduced his chances of being granted a new opportunity by Mr Mattarella, according to an official who spoke before the resignation.

The timing of the turmoil has baffled many Italians, with more than 400 deaths a day from Covid-19 while Mr Conte and Mr Renzi tussled and growing evidence of a further hit to the country's battered public finances.

There was also unease at Mr Conte's willingness to use emergency powers just as the prospect of the European Union's recovery package is raising the stakes.

Officially, Mr Renzi's dispute with Mr Conte was driven by disagreements over how the €209 billion (S$336.6 billion) in grants and loans should be spent and how the spending should be controlled.

But there is also an awareness that whoever is in power over the next two years stands to reap the political gains from that windfall.

One consideration that delayed Mr Conte's resignation was the concern that Mr Renzi would seek to manoeuvre someone else into position to replace him as prime minister.

Mr Conte's supporters fear that the centre-right would win a snap vote, and fewer seats will be available after Parliament was downsized in a constitutional reform.

Opinion polls suggest that Five Star would face a drubbing and Mr Renzi's party could be wiped out.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2021, with the headline 'Italian PM Conte resigns as ally pulls out'. Subscribe