The middle of a global pandemic and a brutal recession might not seem the most opportune moment to try to bring down the Italian government. That is unless you are Matteo Renzi, the former prime minister and one-time golden boy of Italian politics, who has kicked off the new year by threatening to withdraw his small party’s support for the ruling coalition.
Mr Renzi has accused Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of bungling plans on how vast sums of EU recovery money will be spent and refusing to tap additional EU funds to bolster Italy’s coronavirus response.
A showdown between the two men is expected to take place on Thursday when Mr Conte holds a cabinet meeting to approve his recovery plans. If ministers from Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva withhold their support, Mr Conte could be forced to return to parliament to try to form a new coalition without the party.
Despite coming under severe criticism from opposition politicians and the media during the second wave of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, Mr Conte remains well liked by voters in spite of lacking a party of his own.
A law professor who was previously unknown in Italian politics, Mr Conte was plucked from obscurity to lead a coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star and anti-immigration League parties in 2018. When that government collapsed a year later he rebranded himself as a centrist and was appointed to lead the current coalition between the now more moderate Five Star and the centre-left Democratic party (PD), an alliance Mr Renzi was integral in creating.
Yet since then Mr Conte has presented an obstacle to Mr Renzi’s own renewed political ambitions through a new small spin-off party from the PD called Italia Viva. Last weekend Mr Renzi threw down the gauntlet in a newspaper interview, openly discussing withdrawing his support for the coalition.
“If [Conte] decides to go to parliament and see the numbers we will accept the challenge,” Mr Renzi said, threatening that if the government then fell there were “several different solutions” for life without Mr Conte.
Mr Renzi, the then leader of the PD, became Italy’s youngest prime minister in 2014 at the age of 39 before resigning after losing a referendum on constitutional reform two years later.
The coalition could survive losing Mr Renzi’s lawmakers in the lower house, where it only has 30 MPs. But it commands such a thin majority in the upper house that the exit of the small number of senators from Italia Viva could trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister.
If Mr Conte then failed to cobble together a new coalition, President Sergio Mattarella could call a general election although few expect this to be possible during the pandemic and during a complex resizing of the number of Italian lawmakers under way after a referendum earlier this year.
Opinion polls show Mr Conte would command the support of around 15 per cent of the Italian electorate should he decide to launch his own party. As a centrist Mr Conte would also be competing for the same voters as Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva, a factor that some observers believe has motivated the former prime minister to attempt to unseat the current one.
But Italia Viva is polling in the low single digits and in the unlikely event of new elections the party risks being all but wiped off the political map.
Some observers believe that Mr Renzi, for all of his tough talk, is merely attempting to exploit the fact that the pandemic and constitutional reforms mean that he can use the conflict to carve out a larger political profile for himself without the risk of triggering elections that would risk destroying him.
“I don’t think that the idea of sending away . . . the most popular man in the country to do a favour to the most unpopular one can pass through anyone’s mind,” said the 71-year-old former Italian prime minister Massimo D’Alema on Wednesday. Few had any doubt about the identities of the men he was referring to.
Similarly the Five Star Movement and PD do not want to risk new elections, as they would hand an opportunity for the rightwing opposition, led by Matteo Salvini’s League, to displace them in government. As such, for now, they are backing Mr Conte.
“I don’t think Renzi is aiming for early elections, and I think they are a very remote possibility,” said Francesco Galietti, head of the political risk consultancy Policy Sonar. “Renzi wants to be a king maker, to assert his leadership at a time when Italy has an unprecedented amount of money to spend. He is trying to weaponise a growing sense of disappointment about how Conte is managing the crisis, and he may well manage to get Conte to give him more say in the direction of the government.”
For the veteran politician Mr D’Alema in spite of all the drama the most likely outcome is that political self-interest on all sides means Mr Conte, at least for now, stays in place. “It suits everyone,” he said. “You'll see that soon we’ll be back to talking about something else.”