Italy has plunged into political crisis after former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi withdrew from the ruling coalition, risking the collapse of the government in the middle of a raging coronavirus pandemic.
Renzi announced the resignation of two cabinet ministers and a junior minister from his Italia Viva party on Wednesday, in a split that deprives Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of his parliamentary majority.
Tensions between the two men had been rising for weeks over the handling of the COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed more than 80,000 lives in Italy.
They came to a head over plans to spend more than 200 billion euros in European Union recovery funds, that Renzi warned risked being wasted.
Renzi had long threatened to quit government over that issue.
“Being responsible is about facing up to problems, not hiding them,” Renzi, who governed Italy from 2014 to 2016. told a news conference on Wednesday.
“Italy Alive [Italia Viva] didn’t provoke the political crisis,” he told reporters, putting the blame for the government’s unravelling on Conte’s methods. “We won’t allow anyone to have full powers.”
Earlier on Wednesday, Conte visited President Sergio Mattarella, the ultimate arbiter of Italian political crises, to find a way out of the impasse.
“For sure, the country would definitely not understand a crisis… people are asking us to go on, in such a complex, difficult situation,” Conte warned.
Conte had also made a last-ditch appeal to Renzi on Wednesday to stay within the four-party coalition, which took office in August 2019, saying he was convinced government unity could be restored if there was goodwill from all sides.
“If there is willingness, I’ll work to reinforce the cohesion of the coalition,” said Conte.
At a news conference in Rome, Renzi said he would still support the government on help for businesses and measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.
He held out an olive branch to Conte, saying that how the crisis panned out was “up to the prime minister”.
“We are ready for all kinds of discussions,” he said.
One possible scenario would be for the coalition parties to try to renegotiate a new pact with Italia Viva, which would almost certainly open the way for a major cabinet reshuffle, with or without Conte at the helm.
If the coalition cannot agree on a way forward, President Mattarella would almost certainly try to put together a government of national unity to deal with the health emergency, which has killed 80,000 Italians.
If that failed, the only option would be a national vote.
Italia Viva’s 18 senators hold the balance of power in the Senate, although Conte’s majority is solid in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.
Renzi told reporters he thought elections could be avoided, saying he was sure a majority could be found in Parliament to back a new government.