Matteo Renzi. Photo: Samantha Zucchi/Insidefoto/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images
Italy is no stranger to unstable governments. In its 73-year history as a parliamentary republic, the country has had 65 governments averaging a year and two months in duration. But this time, the governmental crisis has politicians and voters baffled, with polls showing that one in two Italians doesn’t understand why this is happening.
On the 13th of January, former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, announced his party would pull out of the governing coalition, leaving his partners – the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) – without a clear majority.
Renzi leads a small centre-left party he launched in September 2019. For the past two weeks, he’d been in talks with Italy’s current Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, pushing for a series of proposals to be included in the country’s post-COVID economic recovery plan, which passed on the 12th of January. But even though many of his demands were met, Renzi’s ministers abstained from the vote and resigned a day later.
The path forward is currently unclear. Prime Minister Conte can either formally hand in his resignations to President Sergio Mattarella, who could ask him to find new alliances and create a new government; or Conte could ask for a confidence vote in Parliament to check if the current executive has enough votes to move forward, an unlikely scenario at this point. President Mattarella could also appoint a new person to form a caretaker government which would lead the country through this delicate phase while waiting for a better time for elections. But if all else fails, Italians will once again be called to the polls early.
Meanwhile, people are pretty furious. Many have complained on social media that this is not the right time for political instability, since Italy has one of the highest COVID-19 death tolls in the world and is projected to have lost 9 percent of its GDP in 2020 alone due to the pandemic.
Renzi, however, disagrees. “There’s a health emergency, but that cannot be the only reason keeping the government together,” he said in a press conference he called to announce his ministers’ resignations. “It’s much more difficult to leave a government post than to cling to the status quo,” he said.
But in the same poll asking whether voters understood the crisis, 70 percent of respondents said Renzi triggered it only to pursue his own personal interests. Formerly head of the main centre-left PD party, Renzi’s popularity plummeted after he failed to pass a constitutional referendum in 2016 and was forced to resign. Dubbing them as “baffling” and a “lose-lose strategy”, critics say his current moves are a misguided attempt to get back into the eye of the political debate after years in the background.
Experts are also worried that the instability will accelerate the rise to power of Italian far-right parties, as their alliance and popularity are currently much more consolidated than any other coalition which could emerge from the crisis.
“Let’s ask Italians what they want,” said the leader of the far-right Lega party, Matteo Salvini, in a statement. Salvini has been waiting for an opportunity to lead a government since his party rose in popularity in 2018. Giorgia Meloni, head of the far-right party Brothers of Italy, shared a similar opinion in a tweet. Most polls asking who Italians would vote for if elections were held today favour the right and far-right coalition by large margins.
President Mattarella is now asked to solve the fifth government crisis since the beginning of his term in 2015. In the meantime, there are memes.