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The Italian government is entering a crisis in the middle of a pandemic

ROME – The history of Italy’s political instability reappeared in particularly volatile times on Wednesday, when the government crisis began in the midst of a pandemic that devastated the country, raised doubts about the competence of its leadership and intensified political battles.

The government, a shaky coalition for convenience between increasingly unpopular populists and the center-left establishment, appears on the brink of implosion amid a long-running power struggle, revenge conspiracies and ideological disputes over EU bailouts.

Italy now finds itself in a familiar period of political uncertainty, but one that is far more dangerous given the pandemic.

The crisis was sparked by the resignation of government ministers by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who controls a small but critical support in the ruling majority. His gambit, which nervous political leaders spent the week trying to avoid, is forcing his rival, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, into a difficult position.

The opening of a government crisis comes when Italy, the first European country to be hit hard by the virus and among the most devastated by it, launches a vaccination program that the nation’s hopes rely on.

Italian voters, who largely do not understand and are not interested in the machinations and battles between political leaders, are concerned that the breakdown could hamper Italy’s viral response and delay a return to a semblance of normalcy.

At a press conference Wednesday night, Mr Renzi, a center-left politician, officially announced the resignation of two of his ministers. He did not rule out joining another government led by Mr Conte, but said the prime minister had forced his hand, using the pandemic as a pretext to circumvent democratic institutions.

“Precisely because there is a pandemic, there is a need to follow the rules of democracy,” he said.

Silently complaining to many in the Democratic Party he once led, Mr Renzi said more populist members of the government focused more on gaining social media likes than on serious governance. He said Mr Conte’s government had failed to move forward on infrastructure projects, invest in jobs for Italian youth and sufficiently condemn President Trump’s supporters who stormed the US Capitol building a week ago.

Most importantly, he said, the ideological populists in Mr Conte’s government refused to accept billions of euros in EU rescue money for Italy’s healthcare system.

Mr Renzi’s reaction to the break was swift and negative from the entire Italian political landscape, with leaders complaining that Mr Renzi’s move was unreasonable, politically motivated and plunged the country into the abyss.

“A grave mistake made by a few that we will all pay for,” Andrea Orlando, a former ally of Mr Renzi of the Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter.

Mr Conte’s administration may be able to retain a parliamentary majority, potentially by relocating the current cabinet. But this becomes more difficult without Mr Renzi’s approval.

Mr Conte may also resign, leading to the collapse of the government in the midst of the worst national crisis facing Italy since World War II. Then the President of Italy may ask someone with enough support, perhaps even Mr Conte, to form another government to be approved by parliament.

But if a new and lasting coalition cannot be found, the political crisis could eventually trigger new elections in potentially dangerous conditions and open the door to the return of nationalist forces.

Mr. Renzi’s critics, who are full, see a vindictive and ambitious politician who now had only the power to destroy, but could not resist using him.

Mr Renzi, a skilled political operator from the center-left establishment, effectively ousted nationalist leader Matteo Salvini in 2019. After Mr Salvini surpassed himself in the ruling coalition in the seizure of power, Mr Renzi seized the moment, swallowing considerable pride. to create an incredible alliance between the Democratic Party he once led and the populist Five Star Movement, which has spent years spreading insults and misinformation about him and overthrowing him. This deal prevented new elections, which Mr Salvini was scheduled to win, and held him back.

Mr Renzi then immediately left the Democratic Party and formed a small party, Italia Viva, which failed to gain real strength. But there are enough members of parliament to be decisive for the survival of the five-star government and the Democratic Party.

Tensions between Mr Conte and Mr Renzi erupted in December when Mr Conte announced the formation of another working group to decide how to spend more than € 200 billion – about $ 243 billion – from the fund. for the reconstruction of the European Union.

Mr Renzi is also urging the government to accept a separate sum of € 36 billion – about $ 44 billion – provided by the European Union and earmarked for the Italian health system. The “five stars” who came to power, expressing anger against the establishment against Brussels, rejected the source of this funding, called the European Stability Mechanism, as anathema to its populist roots.

For weeks, Mr. Conte and Mr. Renzi have been playing chicken. Mr Renzi’s popular support, which is already scraping the basement, has reduced the disadvantage of doing something unpopular. He had nothing to lose, which gave him more leverage in the meeting with Mr Conte, who in fact gave up many of Mr Renzi’s demands.

But the prime minister has firmly refused to take money from the European Stability Mechanism.

On the eve of Mr Renzi’s leap, Mr Salvini, the populist leader, drooled in anticipation of a new chance at power.

“Better an election or a center-right government than this quarrel,” he told reporters on the outskirts of a protest in Rome.

On Wednesday night, Mr Renzi said he opposed the possibility of new elections. To avoid this, he could return his support to Mr Conte, but in a crisis, things are unpredictable and can get out of hand. For this reason, members of the government tried to pull Mr Renzi off the brink.

The toughest members of the Five Stars have ever refused to work with Mr Renzi’s party again if he collapses the government.

It is not clear where this leaves Mr Renzi, or Italy.

Some of Italy’s leading virologists are apparently disgusted by the political distractions in emergency medical care.

“The orchestra is playing while the Titanic is sinking,” Massimo Gali, director of the infectious diseases department at Luigi Saco Hospital in Milan, told Italian television. “There’s a chance we’ll have hospitals in serious trouble again next week.”

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