But if Conte fails to assemble a new majority, far more significant political changes could upend a country contending not only with the virus but also with its deepest recession on record. Italy could wind up with an unelected unity government — or new elections that bring the far right to power.
Italy has long been used to fragile governments. Faced with a coronavirus emergency, the parties in this center-left coalition were willing to overlook their differences. But it is now clear the pandemic has outlasted the political goodwill.
Italy is preparing to spend an unprecedented flow of European Union recovery money, and the argument over how to use it helped deepen personal enmity between Renzi and Conte, centrists who are competing for the same voters.
Renzi’s move was met with a mix of anger and confusion by much of the country, with one opinion poll suggesting that nearly three-quarters of Italians feel he is foremost looking out for his own political interests. But Renzi, in a news conference Wednesday, argued that dealing with the pandemic also meant “solving problems, not concealing them,” and he has taken issue with Conte’s strategy for rebuilding Italy’s tattered economy.
In recent weeks, Renzi pushed the government to rewrite its plan for using some 200 billion euros (about $243 billion) in grants and cheap European loans, saying the initial blueprint was full of handouts and short on health investments. When that plan was improved, Renzi said Conte needed to do more — and should have Italy apply for specialized loans that would bolster health care but push the country deeper into debt.
Even pundits who agree with Renzi’s recovery ideas say that part of his gambit comes down to a personal rivalry with Conte.
Conte, unknown to most Italians three years ago, has become a surprisingly durable prime minister by the standards of a country that has had more than 60 governments since World War II. His popularity crested last year during an initial, firm lockdown in the spring that helped Italy flatten the coronavirus curve into the summer. He has since lost a bit of the luster: The virus has come racing back, and this time, the country’s restrictions are less firm and far less straightforward, sometimes changing by the day.
Still, Conte’s popularity far outpaces that of Renzi, whose party has the support of 3 percent of the electorate.
Renzi had once been Italy’s political golden boy, elected prime minister at age 39 in 2014. He has since refashioned himself as a backroom dealer. Sixteen months ago, he helped broker a deal between quarreling rival parties — a mix of populist and center-left forces — to keep the far right out of power.
The far right still has just as much support as it did then — enough to be the front-runner in an election. But Renzi’s calculations have changed.
“Renzi is fighting for his own survival at this point,” said Federico Santi, a senior Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group. “Getting rid of Conte — he thinks it might be a good move in the long run.”
Franco Pavoncello, the president of John Cabot University in Rome, said far-right leaders are “salivating” at the chaos. A pair of right-wing parties, the League and the Brothers of Italy, have together steadily held about 40 percent of the Italian voting support over the past two years. If Italy were pushed into new elections, the government would be likely to become the most firmly anti-European in Western Europe.
But there are several conceivable ways to stave off an election. Even if Conte fails to assemble a new majority, Italian President Sergio Mattarella could try to fashion a caretaker unity government. Some experts say Mattarella would be reluctant to call for elections at the height of the pandemic. Renzi also said there would not be elections until 2023, when by law they must be held.
At his news conference, Renzi seemed to indicate that he was still open to some negotiation, even if Conte stayed on as prime minister.
“We can be part of the majority if they want us; we can be the opposition if they don’t want us,” he said.
Carlo Calenda, an economic minister during Renzi’s administration and now a member of the European Parliament, said on Twitter that it was hard to square Renzi’s constant criticism of Conte with an apparent willingness to work with him. “You are either very confused or deranged,” he said of Renzi.
But Renzi said resolving the crisis would fall to Conte.
“The consequence of the crisis? It’s up to [Conte] to decide. We’re ready to have all sorts of discussions.”
Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.