Coalition government in Italy: how far will Renzi's demands go to maintain the current "maggioranza"

Matteo Renzi

The return of the Christmas holidays is going to be anything but quiet for Italian politics, as the second Conte government is faltering, and a solution must be sought as soon as possible to the open confrontation between the current prime minister and the man whose party gives the "maggioranza" of government to the current coalition (Matteo Renzi, leader of Italia Viva). We are at a turning point in this respect: the "premier" has already sent Renzi's party his new design of the "Recovery Fund", in which many of the demands of the former prime minister's formation appear to be taken on board, and now it is time to find out whether Renzi and his people will accept it or whether they plan to break the deadlock and abandon the current coalition, which would then be in a parliamentary minority. If so, Renzi's two ministers in the executive (Bellanova and Bonetti), plus the deputy foreign secretary, Iván Scalfarotto (also of Italia Viva), would resign on February 7 and President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella would have no choice but to open a consultation phase with the various parties in order to forge a new "maggioranza" that would enable a legislature to continue, which officially does not end until February-March 2023.

This complex issue, which is causing astonishment among Italian citizens who do not understand these wars of power at such a critical time for the country, can be understood by going back to a month earlier, when Prime Minister Conte presented his plan to implement European funds (remember that Italy received the highest figure among all the members of the European Union, no less than 209 billion of the 750 billion at stake). This plan designed by Conte provided for the appointment of the so-called "consultants", who would in turn administer the funds and would be coordinated by a representative of the Five Star Movement and another of the Democratic Party (PD), the two parties with the largest representation in the current government coalition. This meant opening the thunder box, because Conte intentionally excluded Renzi from administering these funds when his small party has the votes that give the current parliamentary majority to the government. Renzi's response could not have been angrier, making extremely harsh accusations against the president of the Council of Ministers, whom he accused, among other things, of having turned Parliament into a sort of "Big Brother", of turning the government into a sort of "task force" and of trying to function with the "full powers" that Salvini had requested from the Italian citizens and which Renzi had denied him by making a pact with the Five Star Movement.

Far from backing down, Renzi showed off his communication skills on television and continued to attack his prime minister, whom he veiled as being truly incompetent. Conte tried to appease Renzi with several meetings with the representatives of Italia Viva, but to no avail. There was only a truce to approve the General State Budget Law, which went ahead in late December. But before the final approval in the Senate, Renzi appeared at a press conference presenting a very extensive alternative document with which to carry out the "Recovery Fund" in which he again criticised Conte's initial proposal very harshly. From there, with Christmas holidays in between, everything has been left pending for this week, waiting for the outcome. And, once again, the key man in this whole mess is none other than the President of the Republic (Mattarella), the only one who can force the resignation of a prime minister and appoint another to form the government; the only one, in turn, who can turn his back on the political class and appoint a non-political government (as Scalfaro did with Lamberto Dini in 1995 and Napolitano with Mario Monti in 2011); and, finally, the only one who can also order the dissolution of Parliament and call early elections. 

Mattarella has one thing very clear, and he showed so in his traditional New Year's speech: he wants the current "maggioranza" to be maintained to ensure that, at the end of January 2022, when his mandate as President of the Republic expires, his successor is elected, who at this time seems clear to be Mario Draghi, former governor of the Bank of Italy and former president of the European Central Bank (ECB), and the transalpine figure with the greatest prestige and international influence. And this is despite the fact that Mattarella did not expressly say he wanted the current "maggioranza" to continue, but preferred to use another phrase ("this will be my last year as president of the Republic") because he wishes to avoid a repetition of what occurred in spring 2013, when there was no way of achieving a pact between the different political forces and at that time Napolitano, despite being about to turn 88, had to repeat his mandate and remain at the head of the Quirinal for a further year and a half. Mattarella, a member of parliament since 1983, a minister in both the 80s and 90s and, finally, deputy prime minister between 1998 and 1999, logically wants to retire to his native Sicily when he completes his seven years as head of state (by which time he will only be a few months short of his 81st birthday) and in no way to renew his mandate.

Certainly, the solution to all this is not easy to find. Renzi is prepared to push the situation to the limit, as the only thing he fears (an early general election, given his very low voting intention confirmed month after month for almost a year) is now a real chimera. With nearly two million people infected; the highest number of deaths in the whole of the European Union; and 60 million people waiting to be vaccinated, holding a general election would pose a huge risk to the population which Mattarella, as head of state, will do his utmost to prevent. On the other hand, Renzi knows that only his party can give a majority, whether to the centre-left or the centre-right.  

And, most important of all: his rivals are afraid of him, and very much so, because they know that the still young Tuscan politician is capable of anything. Almost a decade ago he dared to stand up to the PD leadership when his rival Bersani had everything to gain as PD secretary general and candidate for the 2013 general elections, and just over a year ago he was arrested for making a pact with his "close enemy" (the Five Star Movement) in order to maintain his influence in Italian politics. Of course, there is a limit to Renzi's ability to force the issue: if Mattarella ends up getting fed up and appoints a non-political government, then this would be the end of the political career of the man who is still the youngest prime minister in the history of the First Italian Republic.

In this sense, the fundamental question is where does the President of the Republic intend to go from here: a Conte-dos with changes in some portfolios such as Infrastructure and Public Works or Public Instruction? (what is known as "rimpasto" or remodelling); a "Conte-terzo" with many changes in the government structure and with Vice Presidents for Di Maio, for Five Stars, and Orlando, for the PD? Or a government that would remain as it is, but with Conte forced to accept that it is for the country to agree to submit to the "State-saving Mechanism" (MES) in addition to taking on many of Italy Viva's demands in the new "Recovery Fund", including the "delegation" of the secret services to a person outside the government? Not to mention the possibility that Conte may have no choice but to resign, given his poor handling of the "health emergency" in recent months and that this is a "premier" more than amortised (the almost 1,000 days he has been president of the Council of Ministers between his two governments suggest that his end may be nearer than ever). 

Let us see how this whole conflict ends, but there is one thing quite obvious: no more time can be wasted on conflicts between coalition members. The country is already in the throes of a "third wave"; European funds are already at the government's disposal; and with a debt already close to 159 per cent of national GDP plus growing unemployment, the recession will imply the need for more unity than ever. The answer to so much uncertainty, in a matter of less than two weeks. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes has a PhD in Contemporary History from the Autonomous University of Madrid and is the author of the book 'Italia, 2013-2018. From Chaos to Hope' (Liber Factory, 2018).