ROME – The Italian government survived a near-collapse amid a pandemic and economic crisis on Tuesday when Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte cobbled together just enough support to win a confidence vote in parliament and temporarily fend off an unexpected attack by the country’s leading political operator.
But instead of ending the political upheaval that erupted last week when Italy’s vaccine rollout began and its cities were locked again, Tuesday’s Senate vote could mark the start of weeks of hectic politics to bring about a stalemate between Mr Conte and his archenemy to solve. former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
The Senate voted 156 in favor of the government and 140 against, with 16 abstentions. That left Mr Conte in a weak position, his shaky government still alive, but five votes lacking the support of an absolute majority of the senators.
Mr Renzi had thrown Italy into crisis last week by threatening to withdraw his small but critical support from the government unless he got – well, no one is quite sure exactly what. Depending on who you ask, he was acting in the national interest, out of pandemic madness, or, as most believed, out of an insatiable hunger for power, the limelight and revenge of the Count of Monte Cristo on the populists who were plotting to overthrow him Makes five years ago.
Speaking to the Senate Tuesday night, Mr Renzi said his motivation was the government’s incompetence and arrogance and failure to manage the coronavirus, protect the economy, send students back to school and confiscate a one-off child a generation chance to rebuild the country with billions of euros from Europe.
“It’s not enough to say how great we were and that everything will be fine,” he said, making clear his disdain for Mr. Conte who had changed his colors to stay in power and should have resigned. “This is the moment. Now or never.”
While Mr Renzi’s final remained mysterious, his move and irrepressible embrace of intrigue raised substantive questions about Italian governance in its worst emergency since World War II. It featured amazing reversals, horse trading, and a deeply ingrained tradition of lawmakers dropping their parties for influence.
The showdown highlighted Mr. Conte’s own transformation from a Trump-courting leader of a nationalist, immigration-demonizing, and European Union abuse government to a Biden-welcoming courter of what he called “Europe’s best and noblest traditions – liberal, popular” and socialist. “That happened to describe some of the lawmakers he wooed to replace Mr Renzi’s support.
Tuesday’s vote did not provide the clarity many Italians had hoped for. For starters, Mr Renzi’s center-left group abstained from voting in what some saw as an olive branch for Mr Conte, which made it easier for Mr Conte to get a majority and survive.
But the government wavered and could still collapse. In that case, Mr Conte could return as Prime Minister for the third consecutive year. There could also be a technocratic government with a limited mandate to vaccinate the country and manage more than € 200 billion in aid from Brussels.
Essentially, no one who supports the current government, including Mr Renzi, wants early elections as this would likely benefit right-wing nationalist leader Matteo Salvini. It was Mr Renzi who outmaneuvered Mr Salvini in the last government crisis just 17 months ago and locked him into the opposition by putting the current government between the populist Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party.
Mr. Conte owed his job mainly to the previous support from Mr. Renzi. But this month has shown that what clever Mr. Renzi gives, he takes away.
In speaking to Parliament this week, Mr Conte clearly felt burned. He said Mr Renzi, whom he did not name, “unnecessarily triggered a crisis that is taking place at a crucial time for our country, where the pandemic is still ongoing”. His sin was too monstrous to be forgiven. “We can’t cancel what happened,” he said.
Mr. Conte tried Send Mr. Renzi into political oblivion and turn his tormentor’s takeover into a humiliating foul. “We need men and women who are able to avoid selfishness,” said Conte.
Jan. 19, 2021, 4:03 p.m. ET
Mr Renzi’s support among Italians, which was once widespread, is around two percent. Although he no longer derives power from popularity, he now enjoys the flexibility of little to lose.
“It is never clear or transparent,” said Carlo Calenda, a former minister in Mr Renzi’s government. “It’s hard to understand what he wants in the end.”
But even Mr Renzi’s critics in the Democratic Party grudgingly admitted that his criticism of Mr Conte was justified, despite criticizing him for making his complaints public and using them as political cover for his personal ambitions.
Mr Renzi argued that Mr Conte had circumvented the Italian institutions by ruling through undemocratic decrees and task forces. Parliament and government existed for a reason, he said, and Mr. Conte was both grossly incompetent and the future of Italy was outsourced to nameless technocrats.
He said Five Star’s populist ideology led Mr. Conte to reject bailout packages from the European Union to improve the Italian health system. He suggested that the dire number of viruses in Italy, with more than 80,000 deaths, an economy in tatters and a confusing patchwork of lockdowns, had exposed Mr Conte’s dangerous ineptitude.
Surveys show that only 13 percent of Italians believe that Mr Renzi is acting in the national interest. With more than 50 percent approval, Mr. Conte is far more popular.
Mr Renzi had already used his ransom-like control of the government to change government policy. Over the past few weeks, he has helped the government raise substantial funds from Italy’s more than € 200 billion share of the European Union’s Post-Pandemic Recovery Fund for health care and youth hiring incentives.
Mr. Renzi came to power in 2014 as a “demolition man” and tried to rejuvenate Italy with liberal social and market reforms. But in 2016, when a migrant crisis and growing right-wing populist movements upset Europe, he played and lost a constitutional reform that he treated as a referendum on himself.
When Five Star won an election in 2018, it took a coalition partner to form a government, but Mr Renzi did not allow his Democratic Party to join forces with the populists. Instead, Five Star formed a government alliance with the League party led by Mr Salvini and elected Mr Conte, a little-known lawyer, as prime minister. Critics called him their puppet.
The next year, Mr. Salvini was overwhelmed, withdrew from the government and called for new elections in the hope of taking power. Mr. Renzi took the opportunity to turn around and forged an alliance between the Democratic Party and Five Star to prevent elections and put Mr. Salvini on the sidelines.
Mr Renzi then bolted his party and founded a new one, with just enough loyalists in parliament to remove the majority from the new government. The move gave him immense power with no practical assistance.
His permanent plan angered the country’s voters – as he confirmed in a 2019 interview – and increasingly loathed the politician who was once considered Italy’s greatest hope. Even his followers said he was wasting his significant legacy.
His move this month has forced Mr. Conte, who is less versed in politics, and Five Star to publicly abandon purity claims in order to stay in power.
Five Star previously belittled lawmakers who left their parties and traded their votes for influence, turning parliament into a “cattle market”. Well, when Five Star approached these very legislators, it renamed them “those responsible”.
Mr Conte’s government had to peel off Mr Renzi’s own loyalists, find support in a lucky bag from unaffiliated legislators or, remarkably, woo supporters of Silvio Berlusconi – whom Five Star has described in the past as a “dwarf”, a “traitor”. and a gangster.
If Mr Conte cannot form a solid majority, he may ultimately resign, leading to the collapse of the government and its replacement. Or he could return to Mr Renzi hat in hand and lend even more leverage to a politician who has described himself as a Machiavellian.
On Tuesday evening, Mr Renzi said that if Mr Conte got enough support to continue to rule he should be kept busy, ideally in a way that Mr Renzi approved.
“But hurry up,” he said. “Because you have no time to waste.”