Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Italian PM survives critical vote of confidence

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Italy’s prime minister narrowly survived a tight vote of confidence in his fragile coalition government as the country grapples with a dual health and economic crisis.

In a vote held Tuesday in the Italian Senate, Giuseppe Conte won 156 votes out of 296, below the 161 senators he would need for an absolute majority, but enough to pass due to 16 abstentions.

While the result will allow Mr. Conte’s coalition of the then-five-star populist movement and the center-left Democratic Party to continue, it also leaves the government gravely weakened in a time of acute national emergency.

Votes of confidence in Mr Conte were triggered when Italia Viva, a small party led by former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leave the coalition last week on criticism of its handling of the pandemic.

If Mr Conte had lost the Senate vote he would have been forced to resign to President Sergio Mattarella and Italy would have been plunged into a total political crisis.

Italy has suffered more than 82,000 deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, the second highest death toll in Europe. This month, the Italian government announced a further increase in its budget deficit forecast for this year to allow more spending to fight a sharp recession.

Ahead of the vote, Mr Conte had pledged to introduce greater proportional representation in elections, a move interpreted as an attempt to convince lawmakers in small parties that it would benefit.

Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva ultimately chose to abstain in the Senate vote, meaning Mr Conte needed the approval of fewer lawmakers to survive than if his predecessor had voted against the government.

On Monday, Mr Conte easily won a vote in the Italian lower house, but he scrambled over the weekend to convince enough senators to squeal the upper house, where Mr Renzi’s party exit deprived the coalition of its majority.

With Mr Conte’s unconvincing survival, attention in Rome will now return to how his weakened coalition will progress by spending around € 200 billion on EU money to relaunch the pandemic.

On Monday, Paolo Gentiloni, former Italian Prime Minister and current European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, said Italy’s stimulus plans should “be discussed and strengthened”, but he did not choose the country to criticize.

Yet without an absolute majority in Italy’s upper house, Mr Conte’s coalition faces an uphill battle to pass meaningful reforms at a time when the country faces the worst economic crisis since World War II. Italian governments need a majority in the Senate to pass meaningful legislation, including annual budgets.

“He is now at risk of being a lame prime minister,” said Francesco Galietti, founder of the risk consulting firm Policy Sonar. “Conte will try to make it look like a victory, but the whole house of cards could easily fall apart later.”

Earlier today, MM. Conte and Renzi had exchanged strong words during speeches before the Senate. Mr. Conte accused the former prime minister of causing instability during “a challenge of historic proportions”, defending his coalition government’s record in the fight against the pandemic.

“The entire political class risks losing touch with reality,” said Conte. “Was it really necessary to open a political crisis at this point?”

Mr Renzi replied that instead of being irresponsible for bringing the country to the brink of a political crisis, Italia Viva’s exit from the coalition was aimed at preventing a further escalation of a “health and economic crisis. “.

“We have been asking for a turnaround for months,” the former Italian prime minister told the Senate. “It is not true that we have been irresponsible, we have been far too patient,” he said.

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