Conte’s prospects are walking on thin – and Chilly – ice

  • + Conte’s government lost its majority due to disagreements over the EU Recovery Fund.
  • + He then regained enough of a majority to temporarily survive two votes of confidence.
  • + He remained in a weak position, which has led to his resignation and sparked a midst-pandemic political crisis. 
Giuseppe Conte, tra stima e critiche. Ma chi vorrebbe ...
Source: Il Digitale

Why is Conte’s heat level chilly?

Answer: The withdrawal of Matteo Renzi’s support from the governing coalition threatened Conte’s ability to govern with a stable majority and has ultimately led to his resignation.

Since 2018, Giuseppe Conte -Italy’s Prime Minister- has been leading a government formed by the coalition between the Five Star Movement (M5S), the Democratic Party (PD), Italy Alive (IV) and Free and Equal (LeU).

Last Wednesday, Matteo Renzi (leader of IV) announced that he was pulling his two ministers from Conte’s government due to fundamental disagreements over the management of the EU Recovery Fund. This compromised his majority and prompted a situation of political crisis and uncertainty that has now culminated in Conte announcing his resignation

Initially, this left Conte with four possible options: securing a different majority somehow, re-gaining Renzi’s support, allowing for the transition to a technocratic government -a non-political government formed by experts in times of emergency- or ultimately resorting to new elections.

Since then, the Prime Minister passed two confidence votes, one in the Deputies’ Chamber and one in the Senate. He thus managed to obtain majorities in both cases – in the former, due to Renzi’s party’s abstention, and in the latter, due to two Senators from Forza Italia voting in his favour, and who were then immediately expelled from the party.

This meant a temporary survival, but his attempts to move to a warmer temperature were still shaken by an unfavourable chilly environment: his was a weak majority that could (and did) prove insufficient to govern effectively. What is more, possible additional attempts from Renzi or the opposition to destabilise Conte’s mandate were never off the table.

Not to mention that this political volatility, added to the fact that this would be Conte’s third government in three years, could translate into reduced support amongst a tired Italian public during the country’s biggest health and economic crisis since WWII.

This has finally led to Conte’s decision to present his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella. Uncertainty is thus even higher now; a different governing coalition led again by Conte or by a different prime minister, or even a call for elections, are all amongst the possible next steps. But Conte does not have a lot of time to act, as he only has 48 hours from the time of resignation to form a new government.

Who is changing Conte’s temperature?

Answer: The political instability caused by Renzi’s challenge in the middle of the health and economic crisis, coupled with the necessity to satisfy his different coalition members’ and supporters’ priorities.

Renzi’s reasons for pulling his support revolved around Conte’s management of the EU Next Generation Fund, commonly referred to as the European Recovery Fund.

He questioned the motives behind Conte’s decisions concerning the Fund, claiming they did not effectively address a health system that was failing to prevent high COVID-19 death rates, nor an economic reality that was jeopardizing the future of the country. He denounced Conte’s government’s refusal to accept an additional 36 million euros earmarked by the EU to re-structure and strengthen the Italian health system.

While former Prime Minister Renzi’s party now barely reaches the 3% threshold required to be represented in Parliament, the retrieval of his support has nonetheless sufficed to destabilise Conte’s mandate.

Moreover, the majority that Conte secured in the Chamber of Deputies could be undermined again if Renzi’s party shifted from abstention to opposition. This threat added another layer of frost to Conte’s position, and has now culminated in his resignation and his pressing need to find enough support to form a new government.

On the other hand, Conte is the public image of a combination of different political forces, each with their leverage and priorities. The dependency of his policies upon this internal power balance has earned him the image of a politician whose decision-making priorities are dictated by whoever offers the right support at any given time. 

He first earned this metamorphic fame in 2019, when his then coalition ally Matteo Salvini (Lega) broke off from Conte’s government and moved to the opposition. Conte and his Five Star Movement partners then replaced the far-right Lega with the Democratic Party in the governing coalition. This shift was reflected in his policies, which turned from nationalist and right-wing to his current leftist and pro-European position.

In this case, the rejection of the additional EU funding has been instigated by the M5S section of his cabinet. 

His negotiating abilities helped him get the support he needed for the votes of confidence, and he is likely to use them again now to try to obtain further support for a new potential government. Yet, this short-term victory could end up turning into a longer-term loss of credibility and trust in the eyes of the public. The relative strengths of each of these phenomena will determine Conte’s ability to bounce back from the cold, now and in the future.

What is driving Conte?

Answer: The desire to re-strengthen his support base to form a new government and portray himself as the right person to manage the current crisis and lead the country towards recovery.

Conte has heavily reproached the time chosen by Renzi’s party to spur a political crisis. He has claimed that IV has begun a mediatic attack against him in a time when stability and unity are vital to pave the way for Italy’s much-needed recovery. He placed the urgency of dealing with the health and economic situations at the centre of his attempt to appeal to the members of both Chambers and thus safeguard his position.

Conte’s most urgent priority at the moment is strengthening and maintaining a new majority to be able to govern again. As mentioned before, Conte has been known to re-organise his priorities in order to gain the necessary support and stay out of the cold.

The majority he had after the votes of confidence was weak, as he only passed it in the Senate with a relative majority. He obtained 156 votes in favour out of the 161 that are needed for an absolute majority; 140 against, and 16 abstentions from Italia Viva. Such a weak majority made it difficult for him to govern, hence the resignation. If he intends on forming a new government, it is plausible that he will need to keep negotiating.

Should he fail, a technocratic government, a new government that does not include him or new elections would be the alternatives. Any of these options would turn Conte into one of the more than 50 Italian Prime Ministers since the 1940s whose governments have fallen before finishing their mandate.

The polls show Salvini’s far-right Lega as the likely frontrunner in the case of new elections. Salvini’s party records a 24% of voting intention, ahead of the 20% of the Democratic Party, the 17% of Brothers of Italy and the 15% of the Five Star Movement. Should Salvini win the elections, it would put Italy on the path towards populist, anti-European and anti-immigration policies in the midst of one the worst social and economic crises in decades.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Political instability can jeopardize Italy’s recovery and add increased public distrust and discontent to an already critical situation.

While Conte’s versatile negotiating skills seem to have worked so far, it is yet to be seen whether they will suffice to form a new government. Even if they do, this could prove to be a dangerous strategy to follow in the management of the EU Recovery Fund. Too much ambivalence could result in an incoherent or inadequate management of the Fund, which could in turn compromise the depth and sustainability of the recovery plan. This would only add to the already precarious situation that the Italian population is facing now in terms of health, unemployment, education challenges, living conditions and mental wellbeing.

The alternatives, a new government that excludes Conte or a call for new elections, would not come without their consequences either. Depending on who forms this new government, the arrival of anti-European forces to power could create a climate of hostility towards the much-needed European help and thus further compromise Italy’s recovery and its population’s wellbeing. Not to mention that the electoral infrastructure is not designed to have everyone voting while respecting social distancing and the necessary hygiene practices.

Either way, any of these possible outcomes will likely reinforce the Italian population’s already negative perceptions of their political leaders’ ability to govern. Unfortunately, public distrust and discontent make for the perfect breeding ground for polarizing and populist forces to gain momentum in the same year that Italy is due to host the G-20.