Italian prime minister poised to resign, deepening political crisis

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been in office since June 2018.
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has been in office since June 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

ROME (REUTERS) - Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte went to see the head of state on Tuesday (Jan 26) to hand in his resignation, hoping to be given the opportunity to try to put together a new coalition and rebuild his parliamentary majority.

Conte lost his absolute majority in the upper house Senate last week when a junior partner, the Italia Viva party headed by former premier Matteo Renzi, quit in a row over the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis and economic recession.

Efforts to lure centrist and independent senators into the coalition ranks to fill the hole left by Renzi have met little success, leaving Conte no choice but to resign and open a formal government crisis that will give him more time to find a deal.

President Sergio Mattarella is expected to accept his resignation and hold rapid consultations with party leaders to test the political waters.

If he thinks Conte might get the necessary backing to pull together a new administration, he will give him a few days to try to finalise a deal and draw up a new cabinet.

However, if he fails, Mattarella will have to come up with an alternative candidate deemed capable of piecing together a workable coalition. If all else fails, he will have to call elections, two years ahead of schedule.

Italy has had 66 governments since World War II and administrations are regularly ripped up and then pieced back together in tortuous, behind-the-scenes talks that open the way for cabinet reshuffles and policy reviews.

However, once a prime minister resigns, there is no guarantee that a new coalition can form, and always a risk that early elections might end up as the only viable solution.

Earlier, lawmakers in the prime minister's own coalition warned he would face defeat in parliament this week in a vote over a contested report on the justice system, which could only be averted by handing his resignation.

Conte had resisted resigning so far for fear that he might not be reappointed. Instead, he tried to draw wavering senators into his camp with vague promises of a new government pact and possible ministerial positions.

But his efforts have floundered and lawmakers from the co-ruling Democratic Party (PD) said he needed to stand down and open formal negotiations in order to win time to create a new coalition.

Trying to allay his fears of a political imbroglio, PD lawmakers said they would support him to lead a new cabinet.

Conte has no direct party affiliation but is close to the largest coalition group, the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement.

It also reiterated its support for him, and has also made clear that it does want any attempt at reconciling with Renzi.

"He is a problem and cannot be part of the solution," said Stefano Patuanelli, industry minister and a 5-Star politician.

Renzi has indicated he would return to the coalition on the condition that Conte accepts a string of demands.

If the prime minister shuns him, his path to securing a solid parliamentary majority will be more difficult, with relatively few senators seen as open to joining the government.

Looking to put pressure on waverers, the main ruling parties have warned that snap elections, two years ahead of schedule, will be the only way out of the impasse unless a solution is rapidly found.

A recent reform cut by one-third the number of parliamentary seats up for grabs at the next national ballot, meaning that many of the current lawmakers are unlikely to win re-election, whatever the result.

This means that there will be no rush in parliament for a vote, putting pressure on party leaders to find a compromise.