But if Conte fails to gather a new majority, far more significant political changes could prevent the country from fighting not only the virus but also its deepest recession. Italy could end up with an unelected government for unity – or new elections that would bring the far right to power.
Italy has long been accustomed to fragile governments. Faced with an emergency coronavirus situation, the parties in this center-left coalition are ready to ignore their differences. But it is now clear that the pandemic has outlived political goodwill.
Italy is preparing to spend an unprecedented flow of funds to rebuild the European Union, and the argument about how to use it has helped deepen personal animosity between Renzi and Conte, centrists vying for the same voters.
In recent weeks, Renzi has urged the government to rewrite its plan to use about 200 billion euros (about $ 243 billion) in grants and cheap European loans, saying the original plan was fraught with distribution and a lack of health investment. When that plan was improved, Renzi said Conte should do more – and should get Italy to apply for specialized loans that would strengthen health care but push the country deeper.
Even experts who agree with Renzi’s ideas for recovery say that part of his gambit comes down to a personal rivalry with Conte.
Conte, unknown to most Italians three years ago, has become a surprisingly resilient prime minister by the standards of a country with more than 60 governments since World War II. Its popularity broke last year during an initial, solid blockade in the spring that helped Italy smooth out the coronavirus curve in the summer. Since then, it has lost some of its luster: The virus is returning, and this time the country’s restrictions are less rigid and far more unambiguous, sometimes changing every day.
Still, Conte’s popularity far exceeds that of Renzi, whose party has the support of 3 percent of the electorate.
Renzi was once a political golden boy in Italy, elected prime minister at the age of 39 in 2014. Since then, he has refocused himself as a behind-the-scenes dealer. Sixteen months ago, he helped strike a deal between rival rival parties – a mixture of populist and center-left forces – to retain far-right power.
The far right still has as much support as it did then – enough to be the front-runner. But Renzi’s calculations have changed.
“Renzi is fighting for his own survival at the moment,” said Federico Santi, a senior European analyst at Eurasia Group. “Let’s get rid of Conte – he thinks it could be a good move in the long run.”
Franco Pavoncello, president of John Cabot University in Rome, said far-right leaders were “salivating” in chaos. A pair of right-wing parties, the League and the Brothers of Italy, have consistently held about 40% of Italian support for voting over the past two years. If Italy is pushed for new elections, the government is likely to become the strongest anti-European in Western Europe.
But there are several possible ways to avoid the election. Even if Conte fails to gather a new majority, Italian President Sergio Matarella could try to form a caretaker government for unity. Some experts say Matarella would be reluctant to call for elections in the midst of a pandemic. Renzi also said that elections will take place only in 2023, when by law they must be held.
At his press conference, Renzi seemed to point out that he was still open to any negotiations, even if Conte remained prime minister.
“We can be part of the majority if they want us; we can be in opposition if they don’t want us, “he said.
Carlo Calenda, the economy minister during the Renzi administration and now a member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter that it was difficult to equate Renzi’s constant criticism of Conte with an obvious willingness to work with him. “You are either very confused or insane,” he told Renzi.
But Renzi said resolving the crisis would fall on Conte.
“The consequences of the crisis? It depends on [Conte] to decide. We are ready to have any discussions. “
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.