Italy weathers another storm

It’s been a bad week for the far right. Most obviously with the departure of Donald Trump from the most powerful position in the world, but also with the failure of an attempt to overthrow the government of Italy.

Italy, as you will probably remember, emerged from the last election (in March 2018) with a coalition government formed from the populist 5-Star Movement and the far-right League, under the prime ministership of Giuseppe Conte – himself non-partisan but leaning to the 5-Stars. The only other plausible option, a deal between the 5-Stars and the centre-left Democratic Party, had been vetoed by the then centre-left leader, Matteo Renzi.

In August 2019 Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, resigned from the government and attempted to force a fresh election. But he failed; Conte showed an unexpected toughness and this time negotiated a coalition with the centre-left, now led by the more left-wing Nicola Zingaretti. The new government won a vote of confidence and Conte remained in office.

Renzi, having changed tack since the previous year, supported the move, but due to policy differences with Zingaretti he soon left the Democratic Party and formed his own centrist party, Italia Viva. It remained within the government coalition – until last week, when Renzi walked out, depriving Conte of his parliamentary majority.

Exactly what Renzi was trying to achieve remains mysterious. A Democratic Party minister accused him of “an act of unprecedented irresponsibility.” The ostensible reason for his departure was a dispute over the spending of Covid-19 relief funds, but Italia Viva has nothing to gain from an early election, and whatever else his sins Renzi is clearly no friend to the far right, who still lead in the opinion polls.

So for the second time, Conte refused to give in. He marshalled his forces, won over a number of loose or independent MPs, and prevailed this week in parliamentary votes of confidence: comfortably in the lower house, 321 to 259, and more narrowly the following day in the Senate, 156 to 140. The Italia Viva delegation mostly abstained; if its senators had all voted against Conte, he would have lost on a tied vote.

The result leaves Conte weakened but still in control. Most probably, the quarrel with Renzi will be patched up and Italia Viva will return to the fold, perhaps with some extra jobs or perks. Like most incumbents, Conte seems to have benefited from the health crisis; his popularity ratings are good, and his government’s electoral prospects, while uncertain, look to be getting better as it shows its durability.

The crisis forced Conte to articulate what the government stands for: he appealed to all “pro-European, liberal, socialist forces” to support him. Having started less than three years ago in partnership with the far right, that’s a definite turnaround. But it’s the solidarity that Italy – and the world – desperately needs.

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