Italy's prime minister wins confident vote, but emerges weakened

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Nick Squires
·3 min read
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Giuseppe Conte addresses the Senate in Rome - AP
Giuseppe Conte addresses the Senate in Rome - AP

Italy’s prime minister survived a confidence vote in parliament last night but by such a narrow margin that he now leads a minority government.

Had he lost the vote, he would have had to resign. According to a preliminary count, he won by 153 to 140 in the 321-seat Senate.

It was a narrower margin of victory than some of his allies had been hoping for and well short of the 161 votes he needed for an absolute majority.

The result is likely to mean acute political uncertainty as Italy debates the spending of billions in EU recovery funds intended to confront a coronavirus pandemic that has so far killed more than 83,000 people.

Giuseppe Conte had to call the confidence vote in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, after a former prime minister, Matteo Renzi, pulled his centrist party out of the governing coalition last week.

Mr Renzi, nicknamed Il Rottamatore or The Wrecker, accuses the coalition of mishandling the response to the health emergency and of lacking the vision to properly spend more than €200 billion in recovery funds promised by Brussels.

His tiny Italia Viva party has just 2.5% of the national vote, but it has 18 senators, which was enough for it to be able to throw the future of the government in doubt.

Matteo Renzi sparked the crisis by withdrawing his support from the government last week - Barcroft
Matteo Renzi sparked the crisis by withdrawing his support from the government last week - Barcroft

Italia Viva abstained in last night’s vote, but in future they could line up against the government, undermining its efforts to deal with the pandemic and the dire economic fall-out.

Mr Conte now finds himself in an “extremely precarious governing arrangement that would risk collapse at any divisive vote in the coming months,” said Wolfgango Piccoli, from the risk consultancy Teneo.

“Most crucially, it remains unclear how such a weak and unwieldy coalition without a majority can lead Italy out of the deepest economic crisis since World War II, amid a pandemic.”

In an hour-long address to the Senate earlier in the day, the prime minister said the coronavirus pandemic had hit the country like “a hurricane”.

He said Mr Renzi’s decision to pull the plug on the coalition was unthinkable at a time when hundreds of people were dying each day and the health service was embarking on a mass vaccination programme, with a million jabs administered so far.

Italy recorded another 10,000 infections on Tuesday and 603 new deaths.

Critics accused Mr Renzi of cynically engaging in power politics and attempting to claw back greater influence.

“This is a crisis that has come at a crucial time, in the midst of the pandemic, with families losing their loved ones,” said the prime minister, who wore a face mask throughout his address.

Italy has a lamentable history of short-lived administrations and has had 66 governments and 29 prime ministers since the end of the Second World War.