Italy's Conte in 11th-hour attempt to avoid govt crisis

Rome (AFP) –


Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Wednesday he was working flat-out to resolve tensions within his coalition, warning voters would not forgive a crisis in the middle of a pandemic.

The government is on the brink of imploding following weeks of internal criticism from former premier Matteo Renzi, the leader of the small but pivotal Italia Viva party.

Ahead of a press conference in which Renzi was widely expected to announce his withdrawal from the coalition, Conte appealed to him to change his mind.

"I hope it won't come to that," he told reporters in Rome, saying he was working to keep the government together until the next scheduled elections in 2023.

He added: "For sure, the country would definitely not understand a crisis ... people are asking us to go on, in such a complex, difficult situation."

Italy was the first European country to be overwhelmed by coronavirus cases and remains one of the worst-hit, with almost 80,000 virus deaths and a record recession.

Conte was speaking after a meeting with President Sergio Mattarella, the ultimate arbiter of Italian political crises, to discuss the situation.

He said he would invite coalition parties to discuss a new pact, adding: "I will work until the last day, until the last hour, always to strengthen the cohesion of the ruling coalition."

- 'Unforgivable' distraction -

Renzi has railed at the government over its handling of the pandemic and its plans to spend around 210 billion euros from the EU's post-coronavirus recovery fund.

The cabinet late Tuesday approved a reworked spending plan, partly taking into account Renzi's complaints, although Italia Viva's two ministers abstained.

The populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), the main ruling parties, have so far stood by Conte, warning against further turmoil.

The instability threatens to delay not only the progress of the EU plan, which must be submitted to Brussels by April, but also new funds for virus-hit businesses that were due to be approved within days.

Earlier Wednesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza warned it would be "unforgivable" to distract the government's focus.

"Let's keep political infighting, real or presumed electoral tensions, far and separate from the health of Italians," he told the lower parliamentary chamber.

"It would really be an unforgivable mistake to get distracted or to slow down near the finish line."

- What next? -

There are two ways out of the crisis that avoid the nuclear option of snap elections, depending on whether Conte wants to burn his bridges with Renzi or accomodate him.

The confrontational route would be to seek a vote of confidence in parliament, in the hope of securing enough support from opposition lawmakers to fill Renzi's place.

Without Italia Viva's 18 senators, Conte would need new friends in the Senate, although his majority is large enough in the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

Otherwise, the premier could resign and seek a quick reappointment from Mattarella, engineering a reshuffle that would hand Renzi's Italia Viva bigger ministerial posts.

Conte meanwhile was trying to keep business as usual, calling another cabinet meeting later Wednesday to approve new regulations to deal with the pandemic.

Speranza said that 12 of Italy's 20 regions were at risk of tougher restrictions, warning that the situation was worsening, notably with more people in intensive care.

"A new strong storm is brewing across Europe," he noted. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he added, "was right when she said that we are facing the toughest months of the pandemic".