Italian premier resigns, setting off scramble for new allies

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Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Sept. 5, 2019 file photo, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during the swearing-in ceremony at the Quirinale Presidential Palace, in Rome. Italian Premier Conte was meeting Tuesday, Jan. 26. 2021 with his cabinet before heading to the presidential palace to offer his resignation after a key coalition ally pulled his partys support over Contes handling of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, file)

ROME – Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday after a key coalition ally pulled his party’s support over Conte’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, setting the stage for consultations this week to determine if he can form a third government.

Conte tendered his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who held off on any immediate decision other than to ask Conte to keep the government running in the near-term, Mattarella's office said. The president will begin consulting with leaders of political parties on Wednesday.

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Conte hopes to get Mattarella's support to try to form a new coalition government that can steer the country as it battles the pandemic and an economic recession and creates a spending plan for the 209 billion euros ($254 billion) Italy is getting in European Union recovery funds.

The premier said in a message posted on Facebook that his resignation was aimed at achieving “a government that can save the nation” during the health, social and economic crisis provoked by the pandemic.

“The widespread suffering of citizens, deep social hardship and economic difficulties require a clear perspective and a government that has a larger and more secure majority,” Conte wrote.

Conte’s coalition government was thrown into turmoil earlier this month when a junior party headed by ex-Premier Matteo Renzi yanked its support. Conte won confidence votes in parliament last week, but fell short of an absolute majority in the Senate, forcing him to take the gamble of resignation.

Mattarella, Italy's largely ceremonial head of state, can ask Conte to try to form a broader coalition government, mandate a new prime minister to try to form a government from the same parties, appoint a largely technical government to steer the country through the pandemic or dissolve parliament and call an election two years early.

A technical government and early election are considered the least-likely outcomes. But Conte would need Renzi's support to form a new governing coalition or the backing of independents and the center-right Forza Italia party.

“The most likely outcomes in my opinion are two: one is another government with Conte and with Renzi, and the second most likely is a government without Conte and with Renzi,'' Roberto D'Alimonte, a political science professor at Rome's LUISS University, said.

The partners in the current coalition — the 5-Star Movement, the Democratic Party and the smaller LeU (Free and Equal) party — are all hoping for a third Conte government. Conte's first government starting in 2018 was a 5-Star alliance with the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini that lasted 15 months. His second lasted 17 months.

Salvini and center-right opposition parties are clamoring for an early election, hoping to capitalize on polls prior to the government crisis that showed high approval ratings for the League and the right-wing Brothers of Italy party led by Giorgia Meloni.

Salvini has blasted the “palace games and buying and selling of senators” of recent days as Conte has tried to find new coalition allies, claiming that Conte is incapable of leading Italy through the crisis.

“Let’s use these weeks to give the word back to the people and we’ll have five years of a serious and legitimate parliament and government not chosen in palaces but chosen by Italians,” Salvini said Monday.

Democratic leader Nicola Zingaretti says an early election is the last thing the country needs. He tweeted Monday: “With Conte for a new clearly European-centric government supported by an ample parliamentary base that will guarantee credibility and stability to confront the challenges Italy has ahead."

The ratings agency Fitch said in a statement that the political crisis could hinder Italy's ability to relaunch its economy after the pandemic, particularly if the government is unable to come up with a strategy to use the EU recovery funds.

“The advent of a substantially weaker government or persistent political uncertainty could hamper efforts to improve growth prospects after the pandemic via a coherent economic strategy,” Fitch said ."It could also increase the risk of delays in disbursing" the recovery funds.


Colleen Barry contributed from Milan.

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