Opinion

Solution for the Italian government coalition: "rimpasto", non-political government or early elections?

Italy

The current government coalition remains deeply involved in the internal controversy over how to implement the so-called "Recovery Fund" or "European Reconstruction Fund". This controversy is not only perplexing to most Italians, but it is also very difficult to explain, and the way out of it is even more uncertain. In view of this, many people are wondering whether a new government should be appointed (known as "rimpasto"); whether the president of the Republic should take charge of the situation and opt for a non-political government that will apply all the European funds; and whether there is no other solution than to call early elections in view of the constant confrontations between the parties that make up the coalition. 

The most striking aspect of all this is that the hostilities were initiated precisely by Prime Minister Conte, with the "go-ahead" (in practice) of the Democratic Party (and presumably also of the LeU), and were aimed at Matteo Renzi and his small party, called Italia Viva. Renzi found that his party had been excluded from the structure set up by the premier to implement the European funds, and his reaction could not have been angrier: at a plenary session of the Senate, with all the opposition present, Renzi accused his prime minister (whom he himself supported with his votes) of having turned the government into a kind of "task force" and of having completely ignored the legislative power, leading to the necessary parliamentary debate.

From then on, Conte had no choice but to begin consultations to see whether the "maggioranza" of government still existed: in other words, to see whether the government he has presided over since September 2019 had the necessary votes to be able to go ahead. And already in these consultations the degree of confrontation between Conte and Renzi could be seen: while for the dialogue with the Five Stars Movement and the PD, the 'premier' wanted to dedicate up to two hours, in the conversation with Renzi's party (postponed for several days, with long periods between both parties) he invested... only 40 minutes. This week there will continue to be more meetings between the prime minister and the different formations of the coalition, and the strength of the coalition will be tested during the last two weeks of the year on the occasion of the vote on the General State Budget (PGE) in both chambers. In principle, the budgets should go ahead, as there has hardly been any controversy between the coalition members over the expenditure chapters, but the question is what will happen next: namely, in the first half of January. 

Certainly, the most incomprehensible aspect of all this is not only the inconvenience of this conflict, with a country in the "third wave" of coronaviruses and the highest number of deaths on the European continent, but also who has been "shot at" first: Conte, the prime minister, who has done so against Renzi, who, in addition to being someone very dangerous to confront, leads a party whose 18 senators are key to keeping the government on its feet. Let us consider that the sum of the members of the upper house of the other three parties (Five Stars, PD and LeU) amounts to only 132 members, no more and no less than 30 of the absolute majority required in the Senate. And that, in turn, the three centre-right forces have a total of 136 members, three above the sum of Five Stars, PD and LeU. All it would take is for the centre-right to submit a motion of censure against the government, and for the centre-right to abstain and even vote in favour of the motion by Italia Viva (with a Renzi who, deep down, feels closer ideologically to the centre-right than to the centre-left), for the government to fall automatically.  

It is true that Conte is aware of two realities. The first is that Renzi's party is still far behind in the polls, with the permanent risk of being left out of Parliament in the event of early elections. And, equally, that there is a very evident incongruence on the part of Renzi when, on the one hand, he speaks and, on the other, he acts: he asks to be allowed to participate in the articulation of the "Recovery Fund", and in sum in the decision-making for the reconstruction of the country, but in practice he continues to go completely free. Thus, while the PD, with 35 senators, has half the ministers of the current government (holding such important portfolios as economy and finance and infrastructure and transport), Renzi's Italia Viva, with half the representatives in the upper house, has only two ministers (one of them without a portfolio) and an under-secretary for foreign affairs, and all this is at his express wish. 

A possible solution to this conflict would therefore be to form a new government in which Renzi himself would surely have his portfolio, in order to involve his party fully in the fate of the coalition. With more than two years ahead of him (elections should be held in February or March 2023), it is necessary to plan the reconstruction of the country together, and Conte would be right in saying that Renzi cannot continue to go it alone: if he does not enter the new government, at least more members of his party will. So it should not surprise us that a "Conte-ter" (because this is his third consecutive government) will emerge from this conflict, with the four parties forming a much more compact majority than the current one.

Of course, another way out, and more than one should realise this, knowing how the veteran Sicilian politician (we are referring to Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic) spends it, is for the head of state, who is extremely irritated by this type of conflict, to decide to take to the streets and appoint a non-political government, which would be a complete failure for the current political class. In this connection it should be remembered that similar circumstances have arisen in the past and that the solution was precisely to appoint a non-political government: this was the case of the Dini government in the 1994-96 legislature, and it was also the case of the Monti government between 2011 and 2013. It should not be forgotten that the Ciampi government (1993-94) was already an initial outline of a non-political government: most of the ministers belonged to the political class, but the prime minister (the hitherto governor of the Bank of Italy and future president of the Ciampi Republic) was not a politician but an economist with no ideological affiliation.  

The problem here is that, with parties led by former prime ministers (Berlusconi for Forza Italia and Renzi for Italia Viva), former deputy prime ministers (Salvini for the League and in practice Di Maio for Five Stars) or former ministers (Meloni for Brothers of Italy), only Mario Draghi has sufficient strength to impose himself on all of them, and Draghi should surely not have the slightest interest in becoming prime minister when he is a little over a year away from his almost certain appointment as president of the Republic. However, in the case of a non-political government not everything comes down to Draghi (think of the former chief economist of the IMF, Cottarelli, or the governor of the Bank of Italy, Ignazio Visco) and Mattarella knows that time cannot be wasted on internal wars within the coalition.

Early general elections have been ruled out as a possible way out, at least for the time being. The country is still in the throes of a "health emergency", which is going to last for a long time in the current circumstances and calling for campaigning and voting is like asking Italians to go to the "butcherery", which is clearly unnecessary. Hence, when some in the ranks of the PD speak of the possibility of voting, everyone knows that it is nothing more than a ploy to upset the "dissident" Renzi, but he is the first to know that the circumstances do not exist to call an early general election. And even more so as the election of the new president of the Republic is halfway through, as Mattarella's mandate expires at the end of January 2022: there can be no repetition of the ridicule of the spring of 2013, when it was necessary to ask the outgoing president (Napolitano) to revalidate his mandate despite the fact that he was only weeks away from turning 88 just because the main political forces were incapable of agreeing on a new head of state. 

We will see how all this ends, but it is not easy to know, considering how much Conte and Renzi hate each other, old acquaintances because the former was already a professor at the University of Florence when the latter was its mayor (we are talking about the years 2009-14). It seemed that the two had come to understand each other after Renzi at the time called Conte "la piu clamorosa fake news", but the reality is not like that. And, once again, the president of the Republic "in campo" (although he does so with the enormous discretion that characterises him) to resolve a conflict as frayed as it is untimely. The solution to all this, in a matter of days or, perhaps, weeks. 

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is Doctor in Contemporary History and author of the book Italia, 2013-2018. From Chaos to Hope (Liber Factory, 2018).