Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte appealed to liberal, pro-European lawmakers on Monday to support his teetering government or risk handing power to the nationalist right.
The coalition has been on the brink since former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party last week, depriving Conte of his majority in the Senate, parliament’s upper house.
In an address to the lower chamber the day before a crucial Senate vote, Conte warned that now was not the time for a new government.
“We risk losing touch with reality… All our energies should be focused on the urgent crisis facing the country,” he said, referring to the Covid-19 pandemic that has devastated Italy’s economy and left more than 82,000 dead.
He insisted his coalition, formed in September 2019 and comprising mainly the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and populist Five Star Movement (M5S), could carry on without Renzi.
He urged lawmakers from “the highest European tradition — liberal, popular and socialist” to join them, adding: “Now we have to turn the page.”
Italy “deserves a cohesive government” with “an essential European mission”, he told the Chamber of Deputies.
Opinion polls suggest that if the current turmoil leads to snap elections, a centre-right coalition including the anti-immigration, anti-European League party could take power.
“Go home!” shouted opposition lawmakers as Conte spoke, while League leader Matteo Salvini tweeted: “The sooner this government goes, the better for the country.”
Conte won a confidence vote on Monday night in the lower chamber, an expected result because his supporters hold a majority.
The true test will come on Tuesday when he addresses the Senate, where Renzi’s withdrawal of 18 senators has left him without a majority.
Renzi has been criticising Conte’s handling of the pandemic for weeks, from the months-long closure of high schools to the level of support for small businesses.
Conte, a former law professor who has never been elected, told parliament his government had acted with the “utmost care” taking “decisive action” where needed.
New measures were introduced on Sunday, with shops and restaurants shut and residents urged to stay at home in a number of regions — including Lombardy, comprising Milan.
Italy has been among the European nations worst affected by the pandemic, and is one of the main beneficiaries of a 750 billion euro ($904 billion) EU economic recovery fund.
But Renzi has accused the government of wasting the opportunity, judging its 220-billion-euro plan for EU funds too focused on vote-winning handouts instead of addressing long-term structural issues.
He has also called for Italy to make use of the eurozone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) — a move fiercely resisted by the M5S, which fears it would bring with it tough conditions on public spending.
Conte amended the recovery plan following Renzi’s criticisms, but the Italia Viva politician said Monday it was “still not working”.
What was needed, Renzi wrote in his regular newsletter, was a “unifying dream for the country and not a hunt for a single vote in parliament”.
Renzi has said his party will abstain in Tuesday’s vote, suggesting Conte will get the numbers he needs to stay in office — but without the majority necessary to form a long-term stable government.
Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, predicted that “the Conte government will more or less survive as it is with a smaller majority, and therefore with a more marked parliamentary weakness”.
The premier gave some ground to Renzi on Monday, agreeing to delegate control of the security services — a long-running cause of criticism — in a move that might win over some in the Senate.
But the new government risks being extremely shaky at a time when many decisions need to be taken, not least pushing the EU recovery plan through parliament before it must be submitted to Brussels in April.
“What will be unprecedented is a minority government (backed by an unwieldy coalition) attempting to lead the country out of the deepest economic crisis since World War II in the middle of a pandemic,” said Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy.