Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned on 26 January, just one week after he barely survived a confidence vote in the Senate that highlighted the weakness of his coalition government. Conte tendered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, the ultimate arbiter in any formal government crisis, who invited him to stay on in a caretaker position. Mattarella’s consultations with party delegations and institutional figures will end in the evening of 29 January, meaning that the president is not likely to announce the next steps until 30 January. As there is no preordained path out of this new crisis (unlike the summer of 2019, when the Lega-Five Star Movement (M5S) coalition collapsed), a quick solution looks unlikely. Posturing, cross-vetoing and plenty of noise will dominate during the next few days.
Conte quit in the hope that he be granted a fresh mandate from Mattarella to form a new government backed by a broader coalition. Conte’s efforts to persuade a group of centrist and independent senators to join the government’s ranks, replacing those of Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (IV), are unlikely to yield an absolute majority (161) in the upper chamber. A group of ten cross-party senators joined forces to back Conte’s bid by forming a new group (“Europeisti MAIE Centro Democratico”) in the Senate earlier today, 27 January. However, Conte still needs to convince another 7-8 Senators to secure the required 161 votes. The bottom line is that without Renzi’s 18 IV senators, it is near-impossible for Conte to reach this quorum.
While Renzi stated he would return to the coalition on the condition that Conte accepts a list of demands, overcoming the long-standing mutual dislike between the two will likely require plenty of pressure and moral suasion. If Renzi were to return to the fold (and in exchange secure important ministerial positions), Conte’s coalition could count an around 174 seats in the Senate. As for the M5S’s stated objection to any attempt at reconciling with Renzi, this is hardly a major obstacle as the party is notorious for making U-turns whenever politically convenient.
Though the Democratic Party (PD) and the M5S were quick to show their support for Conte, neither of the two parties is willing to risk early election to keep him in power. In the first round of consultation talks, both the PD and the M5S will put Conte forward as their candidate for prime minister. However, this support is likely to evaporate if Conte fails to build the broader coalition that is needed to overcome the crisis. Sacrificing Conte would likely remove a major obstacle to IV’s return to the coalition that it abandoned last week. In this scenario, the leaders of the M5S, PD, the small leftist LEU and IV would then agree among themselves to choose a new prime minister.
The two other possible options – the creation of a “national unity” government (with or without a technocratic dressing) supported by a broad-based cross-party coalition, or early elections – are both unlikely to materialize.