Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte faced a cabinet showdown on Tuesday (12 January) with a small coalition partner that could bring down his government and unleash political chaos on Italy as it struggles to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
Italia Viva, headed by former premier Matteo Renzi, has threatened to withdraw its two ministers in protest over various issues, including Conte’s plans for spending billions of euros promised by the European Union to relaunch the battered economy.
The long-delayed cabinet meeting is scheduled to start at 9:30 p.m. and if Italia Viva pulls its support, Conte would no longer have a working majority in parliament.
Days of behind-the-scenes talks have failed to bridge the differences and the leaders of the main coalition parties warned of dire consequences if Renzi, anxious to give his fringe party new impetus, acted on his threat.
“I think it would be serious political error that would hurt Italy and that fellow Italians would not understand,” Nicola Zingaretti, head of the Democratic Party (PD), told Sky Italia TV. “I appeal for a return to common sense and to talks.”
One possible scenario if Italia Viva quits would be for all the coalition parties to renegotiate a new pact, which would almost certainly open the way for a major cabinet reshuffle, with or without Conte at the helm.
However, upping the pressure on Renzi, the head of the largest ruling party, the 5-Star Movement, rejected that idea.
“If Renzi is guilty of withdrawing his ministers, then there cannot be another government with him and Italia Viva. There is a limit to everything,” Vito Crimi told ANSA news agency.
A source in Conte’s office confirmed that the prime minister would not seek a new coalition deal with Renzi if his ministers quit the cabinet.
Zingaretti warned that events could quickly get out of control, possibly triggering early elections, which opinion polls say the opposition rightist bloc, headed by Matteo Salvini’s euro-sceptic League, would win.
President Sergio Mattarella, who would have to pilot Italy through a political crisis, has said he wants both the cabinet and parliament to approve a project for utilising the EU Recovery Plan, before opening cross-party consultations.
If the coalition cannot agree on a way forward, Mattarella would almost certainly try to put together a government of national unity to deal with the health emergency, which has killed almost 80,000 Italians, and knock-on economic crisis.
If that failed, the only option would be a national vote.