'Now is not the time': Italians angry and perplexed as government teeters

Angela Giuffrida in Rome
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Antonio Masiello/Getty</span>
Photograph: Antonio Masiello/Getty

Italians have responded with a mix of anger, perplexity and calls for the entire government to be sent packing after the country was plunged into political mayhem once again.

The Giuseppe Conte-led administration is teetering on the brink of collapse after the former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, pulled his small Italia Viva party from the ruling coalition. Renzi said his party was not to blame for triggering the crisis, but that it had been going on for months. He argued that his ministers had shown courage in leaving their posts, and blamed their departure on the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and weak strategy in rebuilding the tattered economy.

But many Italians do not see things the same way. In an Ipsos survey on Wednesday, 73% said it was not the time for a political crisis and believed Renzi was merely pursuing his own interests.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Now is not the time to be adding to problems,” said Carlo Gerardi, manager of a hospitality company. “This will block everything – so many businesses are struggling without financial support and people are losing their salaries.”

Renzi’s move leaves Conte’s coalition, made up of the Five Star Movement (M5S) and Democratic party (PD), without a parliamentary majority. As of Thursday afternoon, the premier had not indicated his next step. He could either offer his resignation to the president, Sergio Mattarella, who could give him a mandate to try to forge a new alliance, or go to parliament for a vote of confidence. But if he opts for the latter, it is not clear whether he will secure enough support to fill the gap left by Italia Viva’s 18 senators. Other possible outcomes include Mattarella putting together a broad-based government of national unity or, failing that, calling elections.

Gerardi believes the government should carry on with Conte. “Then, once the pandemic is over and we see signs of economic recovery, they can do whatever they want.”

Giuseppe Conte in a car
The Italian premier, Giuseppe Conte, centre, is driven to meet the president, Sergio Mattarella, to discuss the government crisis. Photograph: Angelo Carconi/EPA

Tiziana Nicolisi, a bar owner in Rome, said: “Renzi has made a mistake and a lot of people think so, especially with hundreds of coronavirus deaths a day.”

But some support the manoeuvre. Renzi’s main complaint was about Conte’s spending plans for the €223bn (£198bn) that Italy is likely to receive in loans and grants from the EU to reboot its economy, arguing that the money risked being squandered on handouts rather than wisely invested. His suggestions were accepted and the recovery plan was changed and approved by the cabinet late on Tuesday night.

Even though Renzi said the new plan was a “step forward”, it was not enough to change his mind. He also reiterated his grievance over Italy not tapping the EU’s bailout fund – the European stability mechanism (ESM) – to shore up the health service. M5S, the largest ruling party, has always resisted this for fear that it would leave Italy beholden to strict EU austerity rules.

“In the original plan, there were no investments in the economy, just money being given away,” said Arianna Bocchino, an Italia Viva supporter. “Renzi had to push and push to make it better. This coalition is incapable of managing money well and they don’t want to listen.”

Since the Italian republic was founded in 1946, Italy has had 67 governments.
Renzi, who led Italy between 2014 and 2016, in effect orchestrated the Conte-led coalition between the PD and M5S after the collapse of the coalition government of M5S and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League in August 2019. He then left the PD to establish Italia Viva, a centrist force which, he said, would “do politics differently”.

Italia Viva, M5S and PD would likely be trampled upon if a national ballot was held any time soon. The opposition, which is made up of the League, its fellow far-right partner, Brothers of Italy, and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, could potentially secure more than 50% of the vote.

For Alessandro Urlandi, a shop owner in Rome, a new government is what is needed. “I’m completely sick of it. This lot have no idea.”