Italian PM Conte clears hurdle to retain power, but there's a bigger challenge ahead

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte won a crucial vote in Parliament's lower house Monday night, but he must clear a much tougher hurdle less than 24 hours later in the Senate to hold on to power.

Senate confidence vote expected to be decisive for hold on power

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte delivers a speech in the lower chamber of Parliament in Rome on Monday. Conte was fighting for his political life with his address aimed at shoring up support for his government. (Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse/The Associated Press)

Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte won a crucial vote in Parliament's lower house Monday night after a number of abstentions, but he must clear a much tougher hurdle in the Senate on Tuesday to hold on to power.

Legislators in the Chamber of Deputies voted 321 to 259 in approval of Conte's government after the premier sought their backing to overcome a political crisis — lamenting that it had left Italian citizens bewildered in the midst of the pandemic. There were 27 abstentions.

Conte lost his coalition majority with the defection of cabinet ministers belonging to former Premier Matteo Renzi's tiny but key Italia Viva (Italy Alive) party, that threatened to collapse his government.

The open ballot in the Chamber was tantamount to a confidence vote on the government.

Conte's chances of prevailing in the vote received an important boost when a legislator in Renzi's party announced in Parliament after Conte's speech that Italy Alive's deputies would abstain in the balloting.

Seeking support outside coalition

But a much tougher hurdle looms Tuesday in the Senate where Renzi's party has 18 members, meaning Conte would seek support from outside his wobbly coalition to stay in power — even if Renzi's party again abstains in that vote.

Even should Conte's government survive in terms of numbers in Parliament, Renzi's party pullout last week highlighted the coalition's fragility. Conte would likely need backing from the thin ranks of centrists outside his coalition or the Opposition to be able to get legislation passed, including vital economic measures to rescue an economy that was already stagnant before the pandemic pummeled it.

Renzi has faced harsh criticism for the power play during a pandemic that has killed more than 82,000 Italians. But with billions of European Union recovery funds expected to flow into the country, he has defended the move as necessary to prevent Conte from amassing too much power.

"Did we always take the best decisions? Everyone can make their evaluations," Conte told the lower house. "For my part, I can say the government worked with the utmost care and attention for the delicate balances, including constitutional ones," while keeping in mind the heavy implications for ordinary Italians.

"If I can speak in the name of the whole government, with [my] head high, it is not out of the arrogance of someone who believes [he has] not ... made errors," Conte said. "It is out of awareness of how the whole government put all of its physical and mental energy into best protecting the nation."

Crisis has 'no plausible basis' during pandemic

He expressed perplexity at the political crisis for which he saw "no plausible basis" at a moment when "the pandemic is still in full course."

He said the developments in Rome had provoked "deep dismay" in the country, when the priority should be fighting the virus and relaunching the economy. .

The interest rate Italy pays on its public debt has nudged up in recent days, but it is nowhere near the high levels reached during Italy's 2011 political crisis.

During the debate, Conte used his follow-up speech to pitch to centrists, who might be wary of backing a government whose senior party is the populist 5-Star Movement.

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte addressed the lower house of the Parliament on Monday and some legislators held up signs that said: 'Conte resign.' He is expected to speak to the Senate on Tuesday. Each speech will be followed by a voice vote that is tantamount to a confidence vote. (Alessandra Tarantino/Reuters)

And during his speech to legislators, Conte conceded one point of contention that he would give up the secret services portfolio. But he also made clear that it would be hard to mend fences with Renzi.

"We can't forget what has happened, and you can't think of regaining the climate of trust," Conte said.

Italia Viva legislator Ivan Scalfarotto accused Conte of setting up too many tasks forces during the pandemic and not taking enough action.

Conte, a lawyer by training hailed for his mediation skills, was tapped by Italy's 5-Star Movement to run the government after the indecisive 2018 election led to a governing coalition of the 5-Stars with a right-wing group led by League party leader Matteo Salvini.

That government fell when Salvini, then interior minister, mounted a failed power grab. Conte was able to form a new government with the support of the left-wing Democratic Party, which then included Renzi. Renzi later defected from the party he once ran, giving himself the ability to shake up the government by yanking loyal ministers.

Renzi acted after Conte unveiled a plan to manage the EU recovery funds himself, which was widely seen as accumulating too much power.