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Italian prime minister resigns, setting off political scramble as COVID-19 rages

Sergio Mattarella shakes hands with Giuseppe Conte, with national flags in the background.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte during Conte’s 2019 swearing-in.
(Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned Tuesday after a key coalition ally pulled his party’s support over Conte’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, setting off a political scramble as Italy battles its latest coronavirus surge.

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 starting Wednesday.

Conte is hoping to get Mattarella’s support to try to form a new coalition government — Conte’s third — that can steer the country as it battles the pandemic and an economic recession and creates a spending plan for the $254 billion that Italy is getting in European Union recovery funds. Italy has the highest COVID-19 death toll in continental Europe, with nearly 86,000.

Conte’s power-sharing government was thrown into turmoil earlier this month when junior party Italia Viva, headed by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, pulled its support. Conte, a law professor who is not tied to a particular party, 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.

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Mattarella, Italy’s largely ceremonial head of state, can ask Conte to try to form a broader coalition government, appoint a largely technocratic government to steer the country through the pandemic or dissolve Parliament and call an election two years early.

The current coalition of the populist 5-Star Movement, Democratic Party and smaller Leu party are all hoping for a third Conte government. Conte’s first government, which began in 2018, was born of an alliance between the 5-Star Movement and the right-wing League party and lasted 15 months. His second, with the Democrats, lasted 16 months.

Italy could soon reclaim a record — the most COVID-19 deaths in Europe — and is still trying to figure out how to protect its older people.

League party leader Matteo 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. Salvini asserts 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 said an early election was the last thing Italy needed.

He tweeted Monday that he stood “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.”


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