Five things about Italy’s political crisis

Rome - Former European central bank chief Mario Draghi has been tasked with forming a new Italian government after weeks of turmoil, against the backdrop of a still raging coronavirus pandemic.

President Sergio Mattarella asked the Italian economist to work on building a new parliamentary majority after Giuseppe Conte quit as premier last week following the collapse of his centre-left coalition.

Here are five things to know about the political crisis engulfing the eurozone's third-largest economy:

 

- Chronic instability -

 

The turmoil began when former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva party from the coalition government, led by the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

He had for weeks been criticising Conte's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The fallout of Renzi's move highlighted the chronic instability of Italian governments, which are often minority or built out of shaky partnerships.

Since the Italian republic was founded in 1946, Italy has had 29 prime ministers and 66 different governments.

Conte has led two since taking office in 2018. The first involved M5S and Matteo Salvini's far-right League party, but it toppled after a year when Salvini pulled out.

Decades of political instability in Italy

 

- Enter 'Super Mario' -

 

Draghi's name had been circulated for weeks as a potential saviour, although Mattarella's office at the weekend denied any contacts between the two men.

He became known as "Super Mario" after pledging to do "whatever it takes" to save the eurozone during the debt crisis that dominated the start of his 2011-2019 leadership of the European Central Bank.

The 73-year-old has no major political power base in Italy but the financial markets responded positively to the nomination of a cool but shrewd operator.

 

- EU funds -

 

Weeks of tensions between Renzi and Conte came to a head over the government's 220-billion-euro ($264 billion) post-virus recovery plan, funded in large part by grants and loans from a 750-billion-euro European Union fund.

Renzi accused Conte of allying with M5S and "squandering public money" on vote-winning tax breaks and hand-outs instead of using the windfall to invest in long-term structural reform.

He also wanted Italy to use the eurozone's rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), but M5S fiercely resisted the move, fearing the conditions attached.

Draghi on Wednesday said the EU's "extraordinary resources" would allow Italy to help "the future of the younger generations and the strengthening of social cohesion".

The EU's €750 billion post-Covid recovery plan

 

- The challenges -

 

The recovery plan must be submitted to Brussels by April -- and meanwhile, the pandemic rages.

More than 89,000 people with Covid-19 have died so far, while the fall-out plunged Italy into its worst recession since the end of World War II.

Italy began its Covid-19 vaccination programme in late December and has so far administered 2.17 million doses, with 808,000 people receiving the required two.

However, like other European countries it has been hit by delays in vaccine deliveries.

 

- What next? -

 

Draghi will not be formally nominated as prime minister until he can show he can muster a majority in parliament -- and until then, Conte remains in a caretaker position.

"The immediate challenge for Draghi, who is no political novice, would be to secure a majority in a parliament where there is a deep unease towards 'technocratic solutions'," noted Wolfango Piccoli of political consultancy Teneo.

"At present, it is far from clear if a majority in parliament would be willing to support Draghi as prime minister."

A last resort would be snap elections, but Mattarella this week effectively ruled this out due to the pandemic.

By Gaël Brancherau