ROME — A mural drawn on a wall in Milan in September depicted Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte as Julius Caesar at his assassination.
Among the knife-wielding conspirators was former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who almost ended Conte’s political career by withdrawing his Italia Viva party from the Cabinet and plunging the country into political chaos.
However, the would-be Brutus to Conte’s Caesar failed to land a deadly blow and bring down the government, with Conte surviving two crucial votes of confidence in the Italian parliament this week.
Nevertheless, Renzi’s maneuvers have left Conte atop a minority government and time may be running out for the increasingly fractious coalition of the 5Star Movement and Democratic Party.
There is “not a minute to lose,” the prime minister declared on Twitter on Tuesday, after pulling off a high-stakes gamble that few thought would come good.
Conte refused to resign when Renzi pulled his ministers from the coalition last week and instead challenged him to a showdown in parliament, where Conte succeeded in getting just enough support — including defectors from other parties and independents — to save the government, although he fell short of an absolute majority.
An unassuming academic, who was parachuted into power as a figurehead and dismissed as a puppet by MEP and former Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt, Conte has been much tougher than anyone imagined.
Renzi’s attempt to collapse the government last week is now looking like a miscalculation, similar to the mistake made by right-wing opposition leader Matteo Salvini when he tried and failed to force elections in 2019. Bested by Conte, who went from heading a right-leaning government to a left-leaning one, Salvini has been heckling from the sidelines in opposition ever since.
Conte’s ability to mutate has been key to his survival. Nicola Lupo, director of the Luiss University Center for Parliamentary Studies in Rome, said: “Like a a good lawyer, he adapts to every situation. He is pragmatic.”
Conte has also accumulated political capital with his assured handling of the coronavirus crisis. His approval rating was around 60 percent for most of the past year, and remains at about 55 percent. He later won plaudits for securing a sizeable chunk of the EU’s post-pandemic economic stimulus package for Italy, the European country first to be hard hit by the coronavirus.
He has developed into a canny political operator, said Daniele Albertazzi, researcher in European politics at the University of Birmingham: “He has played his cards very well. He may not have the genius of the post-war leaders, but he has shown the instincts to hang on. He was right not to resign and to ask for support in parliament.”
While he may be in a weakened position, Conte still has powerful backers. Well-connected in academic circles and with the Roman “radical chic” establishment, Conte repaired relations with big business when he reopened industry after the lockdown in May.
Since his university days, when he attended elite Catholic college Villa Nazareth — a kind of political finishing school with ties to President Sergio Mattarella and former PM and European Commission chief Romano Prodi — Conte remains close to the church, which helped him clinch the support in the Senate vote this week of veteran Christian Democrats such as Pier Ferdinando Casini.
Moreover, EU leaders such as Angela Merkel and Ursula von der Leyen have made it clear that they are rooting for Conte, including by awarding Italy 28 percent of the EU stimulus package.
“He has an humble, courteous manner which goes down well, unlike some previous Italian leaders who have been brash,” said a diplomatic insider while mentioning no names.
Before casting his vote for Conte, former prime minister and senator-for-life Mario Monti said he would be led by public opinion, “including international opinion.”
The trick for Conte now is to reassure Brussels that Italy is stable and he can press ahead with his pandemic economic recovery plan.
European Commission Executive Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis addressed Italy at a press conference after a meeting of finance ministers this week. “I hope the political instability will not put your plan at risk, since you are the main beneficiary of the EU plan.”
The bad news now is that Conte heads a minority coalition. It is “not easy to govern in minority but it is not impossible,” said Lupo.
The good news for Conte is that he is free of Renzi, a thorn in his side for months. “Renzi was a ticking bomb,” said one government official, “it is already easier to work without him.”
Reinforcements to strengthen the majority will likely be needed in weeks rather than months and President Mattarella will want reassurances that Conte has reliable backers, in the form of a clearly outlined parliamentary group, which could form the basis for a future political party led by Conte. A Conte-led party could already win 12 percent of the vote, according to a poll by Noto Sondaggi.
Paola Binetti, a senator from the Unione di Centro party, voted against Conte, complaining that he was trying to please everyone instead of prioritizing. But she told POLITICO she would consider supporting the government if he makes “intelligent and important choices.”
As part of his attempt to win over senators, Conte has offered to reform the electoral system and bring in a system of proportional representation. The idea may be popular with MPs as it would remove the incentive to form alliances, said Lupo. But in reality, electoral reform would be difficult for a minority government to achieve.
Ironically, the person best placed to help Conte stay in power could be the man who almost brought him down: Renzi. The door is open as Renzi’s senators abstained in the parliamentary vote rather than vote against the prime minister.
In the Senate on Tuesday, Casini said: “Prime minister, you have governed with Salvini and the Democrats, you like both Trump and Biden, so there is nothing that can’t be forgotten. We must recover a shared path with Italia Viva.”
Opposition leaders have demanded elections, but there’s little appetite for that among the coalition partners because constitutional reforms agreed in a referendum mean that parliament will be cut in size by a third at the next election. Renzi’s own party would likely be wiped out as a result.
With Conte weakened, Renzi could attempt to bring him down in the summer, but the lack of options, the urgent need to deal with the pandemic, and fear of elections, give Conte a chance of holding on until then.
If he can survive until July, the electoral window then closes ahead of elections for the president, which would keep him in power likely until spring 2022, said Albertazzi — hardly the makings of an imperial dynasty but a lifetime in modern Italian politics.
The post Et tu, Matteo? How Giuseppe Conte survived political assassination appeared first on Politico.