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ITALY: Giuseppe Conte: From prime minister to mere spectator

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Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is now set to resign in a (belated) move aimed at maximizing his chances to return as the top candidate to lead a new government backed by a broader coalition. Conte is expected to step down tomorrow, 26 January, after a cabinet meeting that will start at 9:00 local time.

As anticipated, last week’s confidence vote in the Senate has not brought an end to the political crisis that started late last year. The outcome of the 19 January Senate confidence vote left Conte in office but not in power as he failed to secure an absolute majority (161 votes). Moreover, Conte only managed to squeak through as Matteo Renzi’s Italia Viva (IV) abstained in the vote.

Having failed in his desperate efforts to broaden his majority, Conte and his government were set to be defeated in a new Senate vote that is currently scheduled for 27 January. Under pressure from his main political backers – the Five Star Movement (M5S) and the Democratic Party (PD) – and seeking to ensure his own political survival, Conte will preemptively offer his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella. The move will mark the formal opening of a political crisis and elevate Mattarella to the position of ultimate arbiter during the talks that will ensue.

Conte’s calculation is that by moving early, and thereby avoiding a humiliating defeat in the Senate later this week, he would increase his chances of securing a mandate from Mattarella to form a new government. Conte would then try to broaden the coalition by including senators that are currently part of the so-called “Mixed Group” or other parties. IV or members of it, as well as lawmakers from Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, could also be targeted by Conte’s likely appeal to form some sort of “national unity government.” Cabinet positions could be offered to make his call more enticing.

However, it is currently unclear whether Conte can succeed in such an effort. The PD and M5S are deeply divided internally on whether to negotiate with Renzi. Both parties are also striving to reduce the power that Conte has accumulated thanks to the pandemic over the past 11 months. If faced with no other alternative than early elections, both the M5S and the PD would quickly ditch Conte and look for another candidate (more of a “useful idiot” rather than a credible technocrat) who has better chances of forming a new working majority and avoid the dreaded snap polls.

Once he has submitted his resignation, Conte would not take part in the consultations with the president as he is not a party leader. The whole process will be led by party leaders, leaving Conte hostage, if not victim, to any agreement they may reach.

A new coalition government, either under Conte or a different prime minister, remains the most likely outcome. However, it is doubtful that a more effective prime minister and government will emerge given the current parliamentary composition and the preferences of the main parties. The bottom line is that Italy will continue to be governed by an executive that is not apt for the tough job ahead, just like it has been the case since the last election.

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ITALY: Giuseppe Conte: From prime minister to mere spectator

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte is now set to resign in a (belated) move aimed at maximizing his chances to return as the top candidate