ROME – Italy’s history of political instability re-emerged in extremely volatile times on Wednesday, when a government crisis began amid a pandemic that has devastated the country, raised doubts about its leadership skills and intensified political turmoil.
The government, a wobbly convenience coalition between increasingly unpopular populists and center-left establishment, appeared to be on the verge of implosion amid protracted power struggles, revenge plans and ideological disputes over EU rescue funds.
Italy is now in a well-known period of political uncertainty, but one that is much more dangerous given the pandemic.
The opening of a government crisis comes when Italy, the first European country to be hit hard by the virus and among the most devastated by it, embarks on a vaccination program on which the nation’s hopes rest.
Italian voters, who largely do not understand or worry about war and struggle among political leaders, are concerned that the collapse could hamper Italy’s virus response and delay the return to a estimate of normality.
At a news conference Wednesday night, Renzi, a center-right politician, officially announced the resignation of two of his ministers. He did not rule out joining another government led by Mr. Conte, however, said the prime minister had forced his hand by using the pandemic as a pretext to bypass democratic institutions.
“Precisely because there is a pandemic, there is a need to respect the rules of democracy,” he said.
Renzi expressed a tacit complaint among many in the Democratic Party that he once led, saying the more populist members of the government focused more on receiving likes on social media than seriously ruling. He said that Mr. Conte’s government had been unable to move forward with infrastructure projects, invest in jobs for Italy’s youth and adequately condemn supporters of President Trump, who stormed the US Capitol building a week ago.
Most importantly, he said, ideological populists in Mr. Conte’s government has refused to accept billions of euros in bailout money from the European Union for Italy’s healthcare system.
The reaction to Mr. Renzi’s break was swift and negative from the entire Italian political landscape, with leaders lamenting that Mr. Renzi’s move was unreasonable, politically motivated and had thrown the country into the abyss.
“A serious mistake made by a few that we will all pay for,” wrote Andrea Orlando, a former ally of Mr. Renzi of the Democratic Party on Twitter.
Mr. Conte’s administration could manage to retain a parliamentary majority, potentially through a replacement of the current cabinet. But it gets harder without Mr. Renzi’s approval.
Sir. Conte can also just step back and cause the government to collapse in the midst of the worst national crisis that Italy has faced since World War II. The President of Italy could then ask someone with sufficient support, perhaps even Mr Conte again, to build another government that would be approved by Parliament.
But if a new and lasting coalition cannot be found, the political crisis could eventually lead to new elections under potentially dangerous conditions and break the door to the return of the nationalist forces.
Sir. Renzi’s critics, who are fierce, see a vengeful and ambitious politician who now only had the power to destroy but could not resist using it.
Renzi, a skilled political operator from the center-left establishment, effectively ruled out nationalist leader Matteo Salvini in 2019. After Salvini overthrew himself from a governing coalition in a power grab, Renzi seized the moment and swallowed his great pride in creating an unlikely alliance. between the democratic party he once led and the populist five-star movement that had spent years spreading insults and misinformation about him and that had knocked him out of power. This agreement prevented new elections, which Mr. Salvini was expected to win, keeping him in check.
Sir. Renzi then immediately left the Democratic Party and formed a small party, Italia Viva, which has gained no real traction. But it has enough MPs to be crucial to the government’s survival of the Five Star and the Democratic Party.
The tensions between Mr. Conte and Mr. Renzi broke out in the open in December when Mr. Conte announced the formation of another task force to decide how to spend the more than 200 billion euros – approx.
Sir. Renzi also demands that the government accept a separate amount of 36 billion euros – approx. $ 44 billion – provided by the EU and earmarked for Italy’s healthcare system. Five stars who came to power and expressed anger at the establishment against Brussels rejected the source of this funding, called the European Stability Mechanism, as an anathema to its populist roots.
For several weeks, Mr. Conte and Mr. Renzi played a game of chicken. Sir. Renzi’s already basement-scraping popular support reduced the inconvenience of doing something unpopular. Having nothing to lose gave him more leverage in his face towards Mr. Conte, who had actually hampered many of Mr. Renzi’s claim.
But the Prime Minister insisted on his refusal to take money from the European Stability Mechanism.
During Mr. Renzi’s leap jumped Mr Salvini, the populist leader, at the prospect of yet another chance for power.
“Better an election or a center-right government rather than this quarrel,” he told reporters on the brink of a protest in Rome.
On Wednesday night, Renzi said he was against the possibility of a new election. To prevent this from happening, he could throw his support back to Mr. Conte, but in a crisis, things are unpredictable and can get out of hand. For this reason, government members tried to pull Renzi back from the brink.
The toughest members of Five Star have ever ruled out working with Mr. Renzi’s party again if he causes the government to collapse.
It is unclear where it leaves Mr. Renzi or Italy.
Some of Italy’s leading virologists are clearly disgusted by the political distractions in a health emergency.
“The orchestra is playing while the Titanic is sinking,” Massimo Galli, director of the infectious disease ward at Luigi Sacco Hospital in Milan, told Italian television. “There’s a chance we’ll get hospitals in serious trouble again next week.”