But if Conte does not rally a new majority, far more significant political changes could claim a country struggling not only with the virus but also with its deepest recession recorded. Italy could end up with an unelected unity government – or a new election that brings the far right to power.
Italy has long been accustomed to fragile governments. Faced with a coronavirus emergency, the parties in this center-left coalition were willing to overlook their differences. But it is now clear that the pandemic has survived political goodwill.
Italy is preparing to spend an unprecedented flow of EU recovery money, and the argument over how to use it helped deepen personal enmity between Renzi and Conte, centrists vying for the same voters.
In recent weeks, Renzi pushed the government up to rewrite its plan to spend approx. 200 billion euros (about $ 243 billion) in subsidies and cheap European loans, saying the original plan was full of distribution archives and lacking health investment. When the plan was improved, Renzi said Conte needed to do more – and should have Italy apply for specialist loans that would strengthen health care but push the country deeper into debt.
Even experts who agree with Renzi’s recovery ideas say that part of his gambit comes down to a personal rivalry with Conte.
Conte, unknown to most Italians three years ago, has become a surprisingly durable prime minister after the goals of a country that has had more than 60 governments since World War II. His popularity ended last year during an initial, firm lockdown in the spring that helped Italy flatten the coronavirus curve into the summer. He has since lost some of his luster: The virus has returned, and this time the country’s restrictions are less firm and far less straightforward, sometimes changing day by day.
Still, Conte’s popularity is far better than Renzi’s, whose party has the support of 3 percent of voters.
Renzi had once been Italy’s political golden boy, elected prime minister at the age of 39 in 2014. He has since transformed into a backroom negotiator. Sixteen months ago, he helped mediate an agreement between warring rival parties – a mix of populist and center-left forces – to keep the far right out of power.
The far right still has as much support as it did then – enough to be the frontrunner in an election. But Renzi’s calculations have changed.
“Renzi is struggling for his own survival at this time,” said Federico Santi, a senior European analyst at Eurasia Group. “Getting rid of Conte – he thinks it can be a good move in the long run.”
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, said right-wing extremist leaders are “spitting” over the chaos. A few right-wing parties, the league and the brothers of Italy, have together steadily enjoyed about 40 percent of Italian voting support over the past two years. If Italy were pushed into new elections, the government would probably become the most anti-European in Western Europe.
But there are several possible ways to avert a choice. Although Conte is failing to rally a new majority, Italian President Sergio Mattarella could try to form a caretaker government. Some experts say Mattarella would be reluctant to call for elections at the height of the pandemic. Renzi also said there would be no elections before 2023 when they are required by law to be held.
At his press conference, Renzi seemed to indicate that he was still open to some negotiations, although Conte continued as prime minister.
“We can be part of the majority if they want us; we can be opposition if they do not want us, ”he said.
Carlo Calenda, an economic minister under Renzi’s administration and now a member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter that it was difficult to square Renzi’s constant criticism of Conte with an apparent willingness to work with him. “You are either very confused or confused,” he said of Renzi.
But Renzi said resolving the crisis would fall to Conte.
“The consequence of the crisis? It’s up to you [Conte] to determine. We are ready for any discussion. ”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.