Italian Tragedy: The Contemporary Government Crisis in Three Acts

A handout photo made available by Chigi Palace Press Office

Prologue

In this land, a word is often used in situations where a political class preserves a status quo while pretending to change it. Italians call it ‘leopardism’ after The Leopard, a novel by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. It’s an illusion of change when everything stays the same. The result is a reinvention or rehabilitation process, like a ‘revolving door’ in the waiting room of the Italian political class.

From an outside observer’s eye, the government crisis could have been a ‘leopardism’ case, but looking closely this is not actually the case. One of the majority parties, Italy Alive, an offshoot of the Democratic Party led by Matteo Renzi – the former flag bearer of the centre-left and prime minister between February 2014 and December 2016 – leaves Conte’s cabinet facing a dramatic turn in the fate of the Italian government. Although the idea of a new government led by Conte himself seemed within reach in recent weeks, the Conte III is shipwrecked in the face of gruelling negotiations within the outgoing majority made up by M5S, Free and Equal (LEU), the Democratic Party (PD) and Italy Alive (IV). The few days intended to try to recompose the old majority, including Renzi, turned into an occasion of harsh mutual attacks. This forced the president of the republic, Mattarella, to exclude early elections and call back the man most acclaimed in Italy in recent years, Mario Draghi, in order to give him the power to form a new government.


Act one

Conte has been surprisingly popular in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but in recent weeks he has faced a rebellion from Renzi. At the beginning of the crisis, a former prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, tried to sum up Matteo Renzi’s attempt to undermine Giuseppe Conte’s government: ‘The country’s most popular man cannot be sent away by the most unpopular one.’

D’Alema is no longer one of the key figures of Italian political life – although it is said that he is one of the most influential advisors of Conte and the arch-enemy of Renzi. Using the sociologist and political scientist Maurice Duverger’s terminology, he has probably been both the ‘official’ and ‘effective’ head of the centre-left wing, the ‘grey eminence’ with strong decision-making power who governed for several years, working ‘behind the scenes’ for as many.

However, Renzi drove him from politics, mounting since 2008 a challenge against what he called ‘the sad leaders of the left’, a political generation ‘to be scrapped’. First on the list was D’Alema. Renzi became for many the ‘system wrecker’, a young mayor willing to send away the ‘leaders of the past’. In a matter of a few years he achieved this. Renzi took the Democratic Party leadership and became prime minister, bringing the party to a record 40.8% in the 2014 European elections.

Matteo Renzi, welcomed by Italians with enthusiasm for his promises of reform, quickly became an unpopular figure associated with political disloyalty and ruthless tactics. As a great opponent of the 5-star Movement, however, in the summer of 2019 he supported the formation of the Conte II government. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, he played a different hand. He left the Democratic Party and founded a new party, Italy Alive. A few months later, during the parliamentary debate on the budget, he tried to attack Conte on more than one occasion, undermining the new government’s credibility and stability. The strategy was obvious tactic was evident: to weaken Prime Minister Conte, who at the end of 2019 was suffering a dangerous decline in political support.


Act two

However, politics had not yet come to terms with a pandemic. And indeed something had changed. Renzi had to suspend his plans, and Conte was thus able to take on the challenge of COVID-19, which in a short time made him the most popular prime minister of all time.

Conte’s rise started in the political stalemate after the 2018 elections. A professional lawyer and academic with no political experience, nonetheless during the COVID-19 emergency the former Italian prime minister achieved the highest popularity levels, securing high credibility levels from EU leaders despite turbulent relations among them. There was a sense that the Italian people felt abandoned by the EU institutions in the first part of the pandemic emergency. Conte managed to maintain an approach balanced between national interests, electoral promises from his main supporting party, and international pressures.

With the second wave, Conte’s popularity decreased. His choices were more contested by citizens, the self-employed, and other workers such as restaurateurs. Nonetheless he remained the most popular politician in the country, firmly in the lead in all opinion polls.

Conte’s skills should no longer surprise. In the beginning, with his inexperience he seemed unlikely to last long. But even if his political career lasts just two years he has proven that he can withstand political attack. In Italy he is seen as polite and calm: characteristics that become fundamental in a muscular and turbulent political context.

Conte’s storytelling has been coherent throughout the pandemic period. He is a leader that Italy cannot do without, who, on the one hand, asks for the ‘sacrifice and unity’ of citizens, almost as an act of faith, and then, on the other, offers a welfare state dedicated to care of families and their ‘children’ in a paternalistic and supportive way. He thus applied a solidaristic strategy based on a welfare approach but with direct effects on personal freedoms.

Then why attack the most popular man? Why did Renzi decide to turn on him?

First, there is the question of personalisation. It is not a matter of a simple feeling of envy or antipathy towards Conte, as some commentators have written, but a cynical political view. Assuming that the category of the personal party undergoes the rise and fall of its leaders exponentially, the respective personal parties of Renzi and Conte, which for weeks pollsters have tested as ‘cults’, could have different fortunes. To date, Conte’s hypothetical new centre party has support at around 13–15%, while Renzi’s Italy Alive seems to float between 2% and 3%.

For this reason, the only way to re-emerge, or at least try to re-enter the Democratic Party as a prodigal son, was to undermine the current government with the aim of blowing up the agreement between the two majority forces. Push them against each other again, as a start. The political tactic was to push some of the supporters of the M5S towards the League and attract a part of the PD towards Renzi or, at best, have him re-acclaimed as the saviour of the party of which he was the leader. To do this, Renzi needed a privileged ‘opposition’ position, like the man who understood and accelerated Conte’s collapse; the pure-bred politician who saved himself before sinking with the whole raft.


Act three

After his two ministers’ withdrawal, Renzi’s gambit to Conte forced Conte to face Parliament’s confidence in mid-January. Conte’s two speeches to the Parliament Houses seemed to open a glimmer of hope of sustaining office for longer. Conte presented himself to the Parliament asking for ‘support’ from individual opposition parliamentarians, using the word ‘help’ in the holiest place of Italian politics: ‘help’ in order to save Italy from the pandemic and heal as soon as possible the wound caused by Renzi through the ‘pact of trust’ established with the citizens. A specific help that he explicitly addressed to all those in the wake of the best and noblest Europeanist traditions: the liberal, popular and socialist ones. Thus the bogeyman of Europe, the lawyer of the people, who became PM to save the nation from the EU’s tyranny, became the main sponsor of a united Europe in a few short years.

Still, while Conte achieved an absolute majority in the Chamber, he had to settle for a simple majority in the Senate, becoming a ‘minority government’ despite the addition of a small new political group of ‘responsible MPs’ created to support the PM. In fact, this has not been Italy’s only encounter with a minority government – there have been a total of 14 similar experiences before – but one thing unites all of them: a short period of survival. So it was for Conte. His inability to form a majority in a few days led to his resignation, forcing Italy’s president to ask the Chamber Deputies speaker, Roberto Fico, to test the chances of reviving the government, mediating between Renzi and the other parties. However, after four days of work, Fico failed to heal the conflict, sparking the end of the Conte II majority and Conte himself. Conte tried to transform his government into a government with a stable pro-European vocation capable of allowing Italy to return as a protagonist in the European scenario. He played his last card, taking a leap of faith to save his government. But in this way he displayed his political solitude and fragility. Political fragility – weakness when it is shown – has an exceptional sensitivity in Italy, perhaps due to its roots in the Christian culture in which religion, as well as politics, is imbued. His fragility encountered the muscularity and all-male omnipotence of this government crisis, causing his momentary defeat. Many are pushing him to create his pro-European party, others see him as head of the M5S in the next elections, but at the moment it is only speculation because history seems to have taken another path.


Epilogue

One of the Italian spectres frequently mentioned in recent years has now arrived. His name is Mario Draghi, and as the most acclaimed hero of the country his figure seems to be hovering over the future of Italian politics. Mattarella, excluding elections, asked Draghi to form a new majority. Although he is recognised as the person capable of starting a new government, he is very divisive within political forces such as M5S; these parties may not offer their support, automatically preventing government formation in his name. ‘The man of the elite’ was chosen, as part of the M5S describes him, to most likely obtain the same results that the ‘man of the people’ would have done. The Italian president has chosen the security of a clear path, although this is Draghi’s first political experience, compared to the old majority’s insecurity.

Furthermore, Italy’s president, in his last speech, outlined an emergency programme with three urgent aims that Draghi will have to realise within a few months. First, to face the virus with an efficient vaccination campaign in close coordination with the state and the regions. Second, by the end of March, to counter the end of blockade layoffs with social protection measures. Third, by April, to present to the European Commission a plan for the large European funds assigned to Italy.

Having done this, the fateful ‘white semester’ will start next summer, a period of six months that precede the elections of a new President of the Italian Republic. According to the Italian Constitution, Parliament cannot be dissolved during this time. So by August Mattarella will decide whether to call new elections or proceed quickly with Draghi until the legislature’s end, before which facing for the new president’s election.

Now the ball passes to Draghi, hero or technocrat, who will have to seek a pro-Europe political majority and implement the president’s programme.


About the author

Marino De Luca – University of Sussex
Marino de Luca is a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Research Fellow at the Department of Politics (School of Law, Politics and Sociology) at the University of Sussex. His research concerns political parties, elections, intra-party democracy, political communication and populism.


The article reflects only the author’s views and the Research Executive Agency is not liable for any use that may be made of the information contained in such publicity. The project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement no 838418.

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