Italy has been plunged into chaos after former prime minister Matteo Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party from the country’s ruling coalition in a largely unpopular move that could end in fresh elections.
The political meltdown, which leaves the prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, without a parliamentary majority, comes at the worst possible time for Italy as it struggles to contain the coronavirus pandemic and emerge from an economic quagmire.
Renzi announced the resignation of his two ministers, Teresa Bellanova and Elena Bonetti, following weeks of clashes over a variety of issues including Italy’s post-Covid economic recovery plan.
Conte could now either offer his resignation to the president, Sergio Mattarella, who could give him the mandate to try and forge a new alliance, or go to parliament for a vote of confidence.
But if he opts for the latter, it is unclear if he’ll secure enough support to fill the gap left by Italia Viva’s 18 senators. Other possible outcomes include Mattarella putting together a broad-based government of national unity or, failing that, calling elections.
Renzi’s maneuver has left observers baffled over his motives. His popularity has severely plummeted since he was forced to quit as premier after his failed referendum in late 2016 and Italia Viva attracts less than 3% of voters in opinion polls.
In an Ipsos survey on Wednesday, over 70% of Italians said now was not the time for a political crisis and that they couldn’t understand Renzi’s motives, other than merely pursuing his own interests.
“It’s much more difficult to leave a government post than to cling to the status quo,” Renzi said as he announced the resignations. “We are experiencing a great political crisis, we are discussing the dangers associated with the pandemic. Faced with this crisis, the sense of responsibility is to solve problems, not hide them.”
Renzi’s original gripe was targeted at Conte’s plans for spending the €223bn Italy is poised to receive in loans and grants from the EU to reboot its economy, arguing that the money risked being squandered on handouts rather than wisely invested. His suggestions were taken on board and the recovery plan was changed and approved by the cabinet late on Tuesday night, albeit with Bellanova and Bonetti abstaining from the vote.
Renzi said earlier on Wednesday the plan was a “step forward” but reiterated his grievance over Italy not tapping the EU’s bailout fund – the European stability mechanism (ESM) – in order to shore up the health service. The Five Star Movement (M5S), the largest ruling party, has always resisted this over fears it would leave Italy beholden to strict EU austerity rules.
“I don’t understand Renzi’s strategy,” said Mattia Diletti, a politics professor at Rome’s Sapienza University. “Looking from the outside it really looks like a lose-lose strategy … or maybe there is something for real that we don’t know yet.”
“I don’t believe Renzi thinks in terms of the big picture, or what the country really needs … he’s not Winston Churchill,” added Diletti.
Nicknamed the “Demolition Man”, Renzi was appointed prime minister in early 2014 after ousting Enrico Letta from power. He then resigned as leader of the center-left Democratic Party in March 2018 after a poor performance in the general elections.
Renzi in effect orchestrated the Conte-led coalition between the PD and M5S after the collapse of the coalition government of M5S and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League in August 2019. He then left the PD to establish Italia Viva, a centrist force that he said would “do politics differently”.
Wolfango Piccoli, the co-president of the London-based research company Teneo Holdings, said Renzi was trying to regain space at the center of politics.
“But firstly, his party is lucky if it gets 3% of the vote, and secondly and most importantly, he is one of the most despised and untrusted politicians in the country, and he’s not aware of that,” he added.
But regardless of what happens next, Piccoli said Italy would still end up with a government ill-equipped to face the country’s challenges.
“That is the real drama here,” he added. “Because regardless of who will be prime minister or whether Renzi is in or out, we’re still going to have a coalition government with a bunch of political parties who are only there for one main reason: to avoid early elections.”
Italia Viva, M5S, and PD would be trampled upon if a national ballot is held any time soon. Meanwhile, the opposition, which is made up of the League, its fellow far-right partner, Brothers of Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, could potentially secure more than 50% of the vote.