Conte's resignation, changing everything so that nothing changes?


A week after winning the "fiducia" ("trust") of Parliament, Prime Minister Conte has decided to go to the Quirinal, the seat of the presidency of the Republic, in order to resign as "premier". In reality, this is a clearly tactical move: he is doing so in the belief that President Mattarella will put him back in charge of forming a government, and that with this he will be able to face the end of the legislature where, despite being already on his third executive, he has been the only one to sit in the presidency of the Council of Ministers since it began in March 2018.

More than one will ask: why is he now resigning when seven days ago both houses of parliament confirmed him as Prime Minister? There are two main reasons for Conte's decision.

The first is that, especially during the day that took place in the Senate, it became clear that for the moment there is no group of senators who could become an alternative to Matteo Renzi, who, as is well known, left the coalition on the 13th due to strong disagreements with the "premier", especially with regard to the design and structure of the so-called "Recovery Fund". The upper house gave him a total of 156 votes, five short of an absolute majority, but this was a very debatable figure: life senators, defecting MPs and even the almost surprise appearance of the always discreet "For Autonomy" group (which has eight representatives in the upper house) allowed the Prime Minister to pass the confidence motion. But the reality was that, on the one hand, some of these votes could not and should not be counted on to continue governing (would we have Liliana Segre, at the age of ninety, come from Lombardy to the Italian capital for each key vote? It does not seem the wisest thing to do); on the other hand, that if Conte saved his head it was because Renzi's senators (including himself, who represents Tuscany in the upper house) decided to abstain, but that abstention could turn into a dissenting vote at any moment.

The second is that this very week Alfonso Bonafede, Minister of Justice, was due to appear in Parliament to account for his performance at the helm of this ministry over the past year. And he ran a clear risk of being censured by the Senate, as Matteo Renzi would not think of abstaining here, but of voting against the current Justice Minister. 

Renzi has long wanted to get rid of Bonafede. He considers him a minister who practises "giustizialismo", in the sense of using justice for political ends, not respecting the presumption of innocence that should exist in any state governed by the rule of law. Just over a year ago, Renzi and Bonafede were already openly at loggerheads over a law that changed everything related to the statute of limitations for crimes, and Renzi had already set a date to censure him: 15 March. But, as is well known, a week earlier the country was completely shut down and Renzi had to put off censuring Bonafede's administration until a later date. What's more, he even had to save his head in the third week of May when the centre-right tabled a motion against the minister for having released almost 400 mafia "capos", most of them with long sentences for serious blood crimes. Bonafede allowed them to temporarily go out on the streets so that they would not die of the coronavirus, but that proved to be a grave mistake, as the vast majority of them have ended up hiding in their homelands, ruining the work of the so-called "anti-Mafia pool" of the 1980s that took the lives of the prestigious judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino.

However, now Renzi is not in the coalition, so he had a shot at liquidating Bonafede, under whose time at the head of the judiciary both Renzi and "il altro Matteo" (Salvini) have begun to be investigated for alleged irregular financing of their respective political careers. The investigations of both politicians, still in the investigation phase, ended up in the hands of the press, and both Renzi and Salvini think that Bonafede is behind it.

However, when both think of censuring Bonafede, they know that the one they are really hurting is their rival Conte. Because Bonafede, a student of the current Prime Minister when he taught private law at the University of Florence, was the person who introduced Conte's name into the ranks of the Five Star Movement, and who really pushed his candidacy for "premier" when Mattarella, in May 2018, made it clear that he would not put the then leader of this peculiar formation, the now Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, in charge of forming a government. This has allowed Conte to preside over the Council of Ministers for more than two and a half years now, albeit through two governments, and not just one, as was the case with Bettino Craxi in the 1980s or Matteo Renzi himself between 2014 and 2016.

If Bonafede, Conte's main supporter, was censured, which would have to be added to the fact that the current government has only a simple majority in the Senate, this would have left the Apulian jurist in a weak position. So Conte has preferred to resign now and wait to see if Mattarella, for the third time in a row, gives him his confidence, and if Renzi finally decides to return to the coalition government, a possibility that the latter did not close his eyes to at any time since his party, in the two consecutive votes in the parliamentary chambers, did not position itself against Conte's continuity, but in favour of abstention. 

Now President Mattarella, the only one who can form a government or dissolve parliament to call early elections, will open a phase of consultations with the different parliamentary groups to see who he can designate as the future Prime Minister. And the issue is not an easy one, as there are at least three completely different positions, and the most worrying thing is that none of them is capable, on its own, of reaching a parliamentary majority.

The first is that taken by the Five Star Movement, the Democratic Party and Free and Equal. The three parties, which formed the coalition government together with Matteo Renzi's Italia Viva, accept a substantial reshuffle of the executive on condition that Conte returns as Prime Minister. The problem is that, without Renzi, they are nowhere near an absolute majority in the Senate, although they do have one in the lower house. They are still looking for senators in the heavily populated Mixed Group, but so far only one (Tommaso Cerno) has left it to return to the PD, a party he left a year ago precisely to join the ranks of the Mixed Group. And they already know that Mattarella wants a clearly formed group as an alternative to Renzi's, or else that they are capable of resolving their quarrels with the Tuscan politician so that he will once again be part of the coalition government.

The second position is that taken by Italia Viva and Forza Italia. They want a "government of national unity" with which to face the remaining two years of the legislature, but for this they need both the PD, on the one hand, and the Brothers of Italy and the League, on the other, to want to participate in this type of government. In their case, the candidate with the best chance of becoming Prime Minister would be Antonio Tajani, Berlusconi's "right-hand man" and in principle his successor at the head of Forza Italia.

However, this second option is in danger that, although the PD could change its position and accept this "government of national unity", they will hardly be able to count on those who support a third way, which is none other than to go to the polls as soon as possible. These are Rome's Meloni and Lombardy's Salvini, who currently have very high voting intentions in the event of early elections being called. Moreover, it should be remembered that, just as Meloni is aligned with the European conservatives in the EU Parliament, Salvini is in the group of "sovereigntists" or "anti-Europeans". Of course, anything is possible, since, if Salvini gets the promise of becoming Prime Minister with the support of the entire centre-right plus Renzi in exchange for dropping his "sovereigntist" drifts (with mid-term elections in between, of course), everything can change. Let us not forget that Salvini has been behind the presidency of the Council of Ministers since the autumn of 2018, when his party began to achieve a real "sorpasso" over the Five Star Movement, and which materialised in the European elections of May 2019, in which the League doubled the number of votes of its then coalition partner (precisely Five Star). And we already know that Salvini, when it comes to transformism, is unique in this respect: he has been, consecutively, secessionist, federalist and, finally, ultra-nationalist. So, if he has to be the most pro-European of all in order to become premier, he will be eager to undertake a new transformation, the umpteenth for him.

We shall see what happens with this whole tangled affair. In principle, everything points to a "Conte ter" with Renzi returning to the coalition in exchange for a series of guarantees, but anything is possible. The resolution is in the hands of Sergio Mattarella, who is very experienced in high politics and is faced with the need to form a genuine "maggioranza" that will allow him, at the end of January next year, to resign as head of state and be replaced by a new President of the Republic. But first he will have to find a solution to the current impasse, which at the moment is proving to be more than complicated. We shall see what happens in the days to come.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Professor at the ESERP Centre and author of the book Italia, 2013-2018. From chaos to hope.