Conte’s decision leaves Italy with no straightforward path to reestablishing a workable government, all while the country tries to manage the pandemic’s health crisis and a vaccine campaign that has slowed because of Pfizer-BioNTech shortages.
There is still a chance Conte could return as prime minister of a recomposed government. But, just as likely, a party that had recently defected from his coalition could return to the fold — with somebody else replacing Conte at the top. If those options fail, the country could usher in some kind of unelected unity government.
Or Italians could be going back to the polls, where the far right would be favored to win power.
“It is painfully complicated,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of Luiss Guido Carli University’s School of Government in Rome. He said early elections remained the “least likely” of any scenario. But anything else seemed in play.
Italy over the past year has endured one of the world’s highest coronavirus death tolls, 85,000, while also sustaining a collapse in tourism and a worst-on-record economic slowdown.
Though Italy is known for short-timer prime ministers and regional divisions, Conte had become the face of a surprisingly top-down pandemic response, announcing lockdowns and decrees in late-night news conferences.
For a while, the pandemic had created an uneasy peace among Italy’s political factions. But that broke apart this month when a former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, pulled his small party’s support for the ruling coalition. Renzi cited inadequacies in how the government was managing its economic recovery. But many pundits — as well as the majority of Italians — felt Renzi was instigating the crisis out of his personal contempt for Conte, a fellow centrist whom he views as a competitor for voter support.
The move, though unpopular, has badly sapped Conte’s power.
Without Renzi’s support, a barely manageable thin-majority government turned into a crippled minority government. Conte last week survived a confidence vote but only because Renzi’s party abstained from participating.
That Conte made it through even 2½ years as prime minister was itself a surprise. He was handpicked — as a lawyer with no political experience — to lead an earlier populist coalition dominated in rhetoric by the far right. When that government broke apart, Conte stayed on — this time to lead a pro-Europe government whose parties were explicitly trying to stave off elections and keep the far right out of power.
Orsina called Conte “a navigator, a very adaptable figure,” somebody who could reshape himself for different governments because he has no clear political ideology of his own.
Italy’s next government — and leader — will be decided in the upcoming days and weeks, with Mattarella, who has wide constitutional powers during periods of political crisis, overseeing the negotiations. The two major far-right parties, the League and Brothers of Italy, which together have the support of around 40 percent of Italians, have been saying the only solution is a return to the polls. Smaller parties appear more open to a deal that avoids pandemic-time elections.
Former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, now the leader of Forza Italia, a modest center-right party, said in a statement Monday that aside from elections, the only path was a “new government that represents the substantial unity of the country in a moment of emergency.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.