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Sunday January 17th, 2021 8:22AM

Italian PM Conte faces power test as Renzi plays spoiler

By The Associated Press

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte’ on Wednesday waited to learn if his squabbling government would survive, or whether a skeptical coalition partner would make good on a weekslong threat to pull out its ministers from the ruling coalition.

Ex-Premier Matteo Renzi, who leads a small centrist party, has been chafing at what he sees 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, only worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renzi had scheduled a news conference for early Wednesday evening.

After conferring about his center-left government's stability with Italy's head of state, President Sergio Mattarella, Conte expressed hope 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.," Conte told reporters.

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 forces, 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 late Tuesday 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.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza decried the tensions threatening the viability of Conte's coalition. He said Italy's aim is "too important to sully it with useless polemics that hurt everyone, and in particular the Italians who, with the vaccine, can and must get out of this long nightmare that we are living.”

___

Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Online Headlines - Washington, AP Online Congress News, AP World News
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