ROME—Matteo Renzi, a former Italian premier, withdrew his party's ministers on Jan. 13 from Premier Giuseppe Conte's government, triggering a political crisis in the middle of a pandemic that might lead to a revamped Cabinet, a different coalition leader, or even an early election that opposition right-wing parties hope will bring them to power.
Renzi, who leads the small centrist Italy Alive party, has been chafing for weeks at what he sees as Conte's heavy hand in deciding how some 200 billion euros in European Union funding will be used to help pull Italy out of years of economic stagnation that has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In announcing that the farm and family ministers and Cabinet undersecretary were bolting the 16-month-old center-left government, Renzi said he had enough of Conte's frequent governing through decrees instead of turning to Parliament.
“Italy Alive didn't provoke the political crisis,” Renzi told reporters, putting the blame for the government's unraveling on Conte's methods.
“We won't allow anyone to have full powers," said Renzi, who had governed Italy from 2014-2016.
It's unclear if Conte may try to negotiate further with Renzi or soon tender his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, who for weeks has been insisting the government focus on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has worsened years of Italy's economic stagnation.
If Conte or someone who could replace him can't muster enough support in Parliament, Mattarella could dissolve Parliament, paving the way for early elections that, if opinion surveys hold, could bring an alliance of right-wing and far-right nationalist forces to power.
Earlier, after conferring about his center-left government's stability with Mattarella, Conte expressed hope that Renzi’s support would remain.
“Otherwise, a (government) crisis wouldn't be understood by the country,” which is struggling with high numbers of COVID-19 infections amid a nationwide vaccination campaign, Conte told reporters.
“If there is willingness, I'll work to reinforce the cohesion of the coalition," he said.
Mattarella has said that if the current government collapses, he may pull the plug on the legislature and trigger early elections rather than risk an alternative coalition with fragile support in Parliament.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that any quick return to the ballot box would reward center-right parties, including the right-wing League of Matteo Salvini and the nationalist Brothers of Italy.
Conte's main partners in the current 16-month-old government are the populist 5-Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party. This coalition had replaced another also headed by lawyer Conte that included Salvini's Euro-skeptic party and the 5-Stars.
If Renzi does yank his Italy Alive party's support from the government, Conte could attempt a Cabinet shuffle.
But if Conte runs of political capital, Mattarella could decide on fresh elections as the better course. With businesses suffering due to lockdowns and other restrictions in the country where the pandemic first sprung, Mattarella could seek out a non-political figure to lead a government. That figure would need to draw enough support across the political party spectrum in Parliament.
Two names have been touted by political commentators: Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, and Marta Cartabia, who formerly headed Italy's constitutional court.
Renzi’s two ministers in the government abstained from a Cabinet vote on Jan. 12 to approve a draft plan for using the EU funds.
Renzi has brushed off criticism that he is irresponsibly provoking a government crisis in the middle of a pandemic.
“What we’re doing is called POLITICS: studying the cards and making proposals,” he tweeted.
Renzi is known for power plays. He became Italian premier in 2014 after he maneuvered the governing Democratic Party to oust Enrico Letta. Renzi, though, lost a political gamble two years later when he staked his premiership on a constitutional referendum that failed, forcing him to resign.
He later broke with his fellow Democrats and formed the Italy Alive party, which, while small, has enough support in the Senate to make his voice count in the government.