Italian PM Conte seeks to save his government from falling

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte on Monday asked lawmakers for their “clear backing" to overcome a political crisis that he said had provoked deep dismay among Italians whose chief concern is the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conte lost his coalition majority with the defection of Cabinet ministers belonging to former Premier Matteo Renzi’s tiny but key Italia Viva (Italy Alive) party, that threatened his second mandate.

Renzi has faced harsh criticism for the power play during a pandemic that has killed more than 82,000 Italians. But with billions of European Union recovery funds expected to flow into the country, he has defended the move as necessary to prevent Conte from amassing too much power.

“Did we always take the best decisions? Everyone can make their evaluations,” Conte told the lower house. “For my part, I can say the government worked with the utmost care and attention for the delicate balances, including constitutional ones,” while keeping in mind the heavy implications for ordinary Italians.

“If I can speak in the name of the whole government, with head high, it is not out of the arrogance of someone who believes not to have made errors,” Conte said. “It is out of awareness of how the whole government put all of its physical and mental energy into best protecting the nation.”

He expressed perplexity at the political crisis for which he saw “no plausible basis” at a moment when “the pandemic is still in full course.”

He said the developments in Rome had provoked “deep dismay” in the country, when the priority should be fighting the virus and relaunching the economy. Conte added that the infighting was damaging Italy’s reputation with investors.

The interest rate Italy pays on its public debt has nudged up in recent days, but it is nowhere near the high levels reached during Italy’s 2011 political crisis.

Lawmakers in the lower house will cast ballots tantamount to a confidence vote in Conte later Monday. The tougher battle will be in the Senate Tuesday, where Renzi’s party has 18 members. Conte is counting on support from independent lawmakers.

As Conte wrapped up his nearly hour-long discussion, some lawmakers held up: “Conte Resign” signs. He got a standing ovation from much of the rest of the house, however.

During the speech, Conte conceded one point of contention, that he would give up the secret services portfolio. But he also made clear that it would be hard to mend fences with Renzi.

"We can’t forget what has happened, and you can’t think of regaining the climate of trust,” Conte said.

Italia Viva lawmaker Ivan Scalfarotto welcomed the move, but noted that Conte was unlikely to have budged without the pressure from his party. He also accused Conte of setting up too many tasks forces during the pandemic, and not taking enough action.

Conte, a lawyer by training hailed for his mediation skills, was tapped by Italy’s 5-Star Movement to run the government after the indecisive 2018 election led to a governing coalition of the 5-Stars with a right-wing group led by League party leader Matteo Salvini.

That government fell when Salvini, then interior minister, mounted a failed power grab. Conte was able to form a new government with the support of the left-wing Democratic Party, which then included Renzi. Renzi later defected from the party he once ran, giving himself the ability to shake up the government by yanking loyal ministers.

While Conte enjoyed broad support during the first phase of the pandemic, which overwhelmed Italy first in the West after emerging in China, he has come under criticism for making decisions and policy without consulting Parliament. Renzi acted after Conte unveiled a plan to manage the EU recovery funds himself, which was widely seen as accumulating too much power.