Italian government under threat again after possible coalition partner hit with mafia allegations

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Giada Zampano
·3 min read
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Lorenzo Cesa during his election campaign in 2018 - NurPhoto 
Lorenzo Cesa during his election campaign in 2018 - NurPhoto

The leader of an Italian party became embroiled in a mafia scandal this week over leaked wiretaps that appeared to name him, threatening to derail Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s plans to shore up his embattled government after it narrowly avoiding collapse this week.

Union of the Centre party head Lorenzo Cesa resigned on Thursday after being notified he was under investigation for alleged links with the powerful ‘Ndrangheta mafia syndicate.

According to prosecutors, Mr Cesa allegedly facilitated some ‘Ndrangheta businessmen and was their political “referent.”

A leaked conversation between two businessmen under investigation for links with Ndrangheta was reported by Il Corriere della Sera on Friday and appeared to corroborate the allegations

One says: "We don't need money, we have those ... Thank God we're working, we're good. But we need a referent, in case we need something ... I don't mean shenanigans, let's be clear, but just a point of reference.”

"I've been close to Cesa, so ... you know," says another.

Mr Cesa has denied any wrongdoing. However, he said it was his duty to step down and wait for the outcome of the probe.

The wiretap is part of a broader investigation, led by Catanzaro anti-mafia prosecutors, that has seen 48 people arrested and another 35 placed under house arrest under suspicion of mafia association, money laundering, illicit trafficking and other crimes.

The news has rocked Italian politics and cast doubt on the fate of Mr Conte’s negotiations with his possible future allies.

Mr Conte survived a confidence vote in the Senate by just a few ballots on Tuesday following the exit of Matteo Renzi’s tiny centrist party from the ruling coalition.

He has since been courting the centrist UDC to join his government.

However, the Five Star Movement, one of the senior partners in Mr Conte’s ruling coalition, made clear that negotiating with UDC was not an option anymore.

“I feel like saying that the Five Stars will never be able to open a dialogue with subjects convicted or under investigation for mafia or similar crimes,” Foreign Minister and Five Stars’ leader Luigi Di Maio wrote on Facebook.

That leaves the Conte government with very few other alternatives as it prepares to face a key vote in parliament next week.

On Jan. 27, the justice minister is scheduled to present in parliament the government’s annual report on the justice system, which will then be voted on.

If Mr Conte loses the vote, he will inevitably come under renewed pressure to resign.

“In this context, it is hardly surprising that both Conte and his allies in the Five Stars and the Democratic Party have been raising the specter of early elections over the past 24 hours,” said Wolfango Piccoli, founder of research firm Teneo, in a note.

“This is essentially done to put additional pressure on wavering senators to join the government,” he added.

Fresh elections, however, remain the least likely scenario, as president Sergio Mattarella – the only one who has the power to dissolve the chambers – would likely be wary of doing that in the middle of a pandemic.