Italy’s prime minister has narrowly survived a crunch vote of confidence in his fragile coalition government as the country grapples with twin health and economic crises.
In a vote held in the Italian Senate on Tuesday Giuseppe Conte won 154 out of 296 votes, short of the 161 senators he would normally need for an absolute majority but enough to pass because of 16 abstentions.
While the result will allow Mr Conte’s coalition of the one-time populist Five Star Movement and centre-left Democratic party to carry on, it also leaves the government severely weakened at a time of acute national emergency.
The confidence votes in Mr Conte were triggered when Italia Viva, a small party led by former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, quit the coalition last week over criticisms of its handling of the pandemic.
If Mr Conte had lost the Senate vote, he would have been forced to hand in his resignation to the president, Sergio Mattarella, and Italy would have been plunged into a full political crisis.
Italy has suffered more than 82,000 deaths during the Covid-19 pandemic, the second highest toll in Europe. This month the Italian government announced a further increase to its planned budget deficit for this year to allow for more spending to fight a brutal recession.
Ahead of the vote Mr Conte had pledged to introduce greater proportional representation in elections, a move interpreted as an attempt to woo lawmakers from the smaller parties that this would benefit.
Mr Renzi’s Italia Viva ultimately opted to abstain from the Senate vote, meaning Mr Conte needed the approval of fewer lawmakers to survive than if his predecessor had voted against the government.
On Monday Mr Conte easily won a vote in the Italian lower house but he had been scrambling over the weekend to win over enough senators to scrape though in the upper chamber, where the exit of Mr Renzi’s party deprived the coalition of its majority.
With Mr Conte’s unconvincing survival, attention in Rome will now swing back to how his weakened coalition will move forward in spending around €200bn in EU pandemic recovery money.
On Monday Paolo Gentiloni, an ex-Italian prime minister and the current EU commissioner for economic and monetary affairs, said Italy’s recovery plans needed “to be discussed and strengthened” but he did not single out the country for criticism.
Yet with a without an absolute majority in Italy’s upper house, Mr Conte’s coalition faces an uphill battle to pass meaningful reforms at a time when the country faces the worst economic crisis since the second world war. Italian governments require a Senate majority to pass meaningful legislation, including annual budgets.
“He risks being a lame-duck prime minister from now on,” said Francesco Galietti, founder of the risk consultancy Policy Sonar. “Conte will try to make it look like a victory but the whole house of cards could easily collapse further down the line.”
Both Mr Conte and Mr Renzi had earlier in the day exchanged strong words in speeches to the Senate. Mr Conte accused the ex-prime minster of causing instability during “a challenge of epochal proportions”, defending his coalition government’s record in fighting the pandemic.
“The whole political class risks losing contact with reality,” Mr Conte said. “Was there really a need to open a political crisis at this stage?”
Mr Renzi responded that, instead of being irresponsible for bringing the country to the brink of a political crisis, the exit of Italia Viva from the coalition was meant to avert a further escalation of “a health and economic crisis”.
“We have been asking for a turnround for months,” the former Italian prime minister told the Senate. “It is not true that we have been irresponsible, we have been far too patient,” he said.