January 22, 2021

Europe

ITALY: The clock is ticking for Prime Minister Conte

BY Wolfango Piccoli

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( 3 mins)

As anticipated, the two votes of confidence that took place earlier this week have not brought an end to the political crisis. Left without an outright majority in the Senate, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s government is still in office, but it is not in power. Conte is now desperately seeking to broaden his support in parliament, especially in the Senate, after the defection of Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (IV).

Conte only managed to persuade less than a handful senators from the mixed group and the opposition to join his coalition ahead of the 19 January vote in the Senate. Specifically, these were two senators from Forza Italia, one Socialist and one former Five Star Movement (M5S) senator. It should be also noted that the 156 votes that Conte secured in the Senate vote give away a somewhat misleading picture. Indeed, the final tally included three unelected life senators who rarely attend sessions, meaning that replicating a similar result in the future would be complicated.

This means that Conte still needs to persuade at least seven to eight senators to regain control of an absolute majority (161) in the Senate. Moreover, President Sergio Mattarella and the Democratic Party (senior coalition partner) have indicated that this support should emerge as a stable parliamentary group, rather than an ad hoc assortment of random senators.

Adding further pressure on Conte is the fact that due to IV’s move to the opposition, the ruling coalition has also lost its majority in several parliamentary commissions, which could severely hamper the government’s legislative action. Plus, the opposition together with IV would be able to shape the parliamentary calendar, choose which minister to call in to address specific commissions and, crucially, determine whether to vote on the minister’s statement.

Conte, whose governing style has been underpinned by procrastinating and dithering to stay out of trouble, is now running short of time to drum up his majority. On 27 January, the justice minister is scheduled to present the government’s annual report on the justice system. If the government loses the vote on the report (IV has already indicated it will vote against it), the prime minister will inevitably come under renewed pressure to resign.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that both Conte and his allies in the M5S and PD have been raising the specter of early elections over the past 24 hours. This is essentially done to put additional pressure on wavering senators to join the government. While talking up elections is not a particularly credible threat (as most lawmakers want to avoid snap polls two years ahead of schedule in which many, especially from the M5S ranks, would risk not being re-elected), it signals that Conte’s efforts to enlist more senators have so far been unsuccessful.

As for media reports that Conte himself is tempted by early elections, it should be noted that only Mattarella has the power to dissolve parliament and call elections. Not to mention that Conte’s allies would not hesitate to get rid of him if he were to press for such an outcome.

While a fresh election remains the least likely scenario, the main risk ahead is that the ongoing political crisis will drag on for some time, further increasing the government’s ineffectiveness at the worst possible time for Italy’s economy and its fight against the pandemic.

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