Friday

5th Mar 2021

Giuseppe Conte: scapegoat or Italy's most cunning politician?

  • Conte could still conjure up the miracle of a third government (Photo: Consilium)

The players of that tortuous and apparently incomprehensible game that is Italian politics are holding their breath.

Especially Giuseppe Conte. After a half-hour meeting with the other ministers on Tuesday morning (26 January), the Italian prime minister went to the Quirinale, the magnificent official residence of the president of the republic – the progressive Christian Democrat, Sergio Mattarella – to resign.

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The head of state plays a crucial role of arbiter in Italy, during political crises - almost a king without a crown.

Indeed Mattarella gave a direction to Conte: he has only a few hours (48, according to unconfirmed reports) to create a new government, the third one of his lightning-quick career so far, and obtain a new vote of confidence from parliament.

But while winning a confidence vote in the Chamber of Deputies, where the centre-left coalition has a majority, should be a piece of cake, the game is far more complex in the Senate, since the three parties of the government (the Five Star Movement, the Democratic Party and the small and leftist LEU) cannot count on absolute majority.

Recent days' attempts to 'enlist' centrist senators to broaden support for the government in the Senate have failed.

But the growing criticism towards Conte and his government by the moderate and conservative media, and by parts of the powerful industry associations, has actually created a kind of 'cordon sanitaire" around the government.

Now, in order to remain prime minister (at the head of his third government) Conte will have to shift to the right - knowing that if he does not manage to get an absolute majority in the Senate, he will have to make way for another prime minister.

Conte's only chance of survival is to create a new government that can count on the votes of centrist Catholic senators, maybe parts of Forza Italia (Silvio Berlusconi's party) and perhaps also of Italia Viva, the party led by Matteo Renzi.

Former prime minister Renzi, now among Italians' least-popular politicians, triggered the crisis and won praise from many centre and right-wing journalists, politicians and commentators.

And if Renzi manages to force Conte to create a government very unbalanced towards the right, or even to oust him from the role of prime minister, Renzi would become the real king-maker of Italian politics.

"Renzi is from Florence, he learned the art of government from Machiavelli, even if he doesn't say so," a half-joking moderate politician tells EUobserver.

Rumours abound of an "alliance between the two Matteos", a tactical welding of the objectives of Matteo Renzi and those of Matteo Salvini, leader of the extreme right-wing League party and of a right-wing coalition with Fratelli d'Italia (an ultra-nationalist party led by Giorgia Meloni) and, in theory, Forza Italia.

In fact, both Renzi and Salvini are both very interested in neutralising Conte.

The former cannot tolerate the growing influence of the prime minister, who has become Italy's most-liked and influential politician.

The latter sees Conte as a fearsome adversary and dreams of returning to government as soon as possible, if not as prime minister then at least as minister of the interior or with some other heavyweight ministry; but the longer Conte's government lasts, the more this moment recedes.

Conte continues?

For now, the leaders of the three centre-left parties have expressed unconditional support for Conte.

They know that parts of the country's industrial and financial establishment do not like the prime minister, and consider him too centralising and overly-attentive to the needs of crisis-hit Italians; but they also know that Conte is currently Italy's most popular politician, and the guarantor of the alliance between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement.

According to a poll published on Monday, 56 percent of Italians want, in one way or another, Conte as prime minister.

Should Conte fall, they say on the left, there will be elections. And if elections were to be held, Italia Viva (which is performing badly in the polls) would be crushed or at least face heavy losses; at the same time, it is also certain that Italy would find itself with a parliament even further to the right than after the elections of 2018.

Such a parliament would be able to achieve the election of a conservative head of state, possibly even Berlusconi himself.

This is why Renzi does not want to go for elections, and might even be willing to support, directly or indirectly, the new Conte government, provided it is weakened. To make it collapse at a later date, probably.

Alternatively, Renzi could trade his support for a new centre-left government for Conte's head. Such a solution might please some enemies of Nicola Zingaretti, secretary of the Democratic Party, and of Luigi Di Maio, leader of the M5S.

Conte would become the scapegoat to appease his powerful critics.

However, there is no certainty that Zingaretti and Di Maio would accept, since Conte strengthens their grip on their own respective parties.

The prime minister knows this, and he also knows that many centrists (and Forza Italia itself) are just as terrified of elections as Italia Viva or more so.

That is why Conte could still conjure up the miracle of a third government, even without Italia Viva's votes.

At that point, he would confirm himself as Italy's most cunning politician, and mortally weaken Renzi's grip on Italia Viva. Wait and see.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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