ROME — The broad-based government of national unity led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, which has increased Italy’s footprint in Europe, led the country through a successful vaccination campaign and gave the country competence and confidence, suddenly wavered on Thursday as the remnants of Italy’s recent anti-establishment and populist past threatened to withdraw their support.
Draghi’s predecessor as prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the largely imploded Five Star Movement, threatened on Thursday to abstain from a confidence vote linked to the government’s spending priorities.
Mr Draghi chose the vote in an attempt to bluff Mr Conte and gauge the support of other hesitant parties. He has made it clear that he would not allow the unity government to be ransom for Five Star’s own priorities and demands – and that he would not lead a unity government that had no unity.
“A government doesn’t work with ultimatums, it loses the point of its existence,” Draghi, who is also a former head of the European Central Bank, told a news conference this week.
If the government loses the confidence vote, Draghi would almost certainly offer his resignation to the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
Mr Mattarella could then ask him to form a new government with a simple cabinet shuffle, or ask another person to try and form a new government – a move that is unlikely as no one comes close to the widespread support of Mr Draghi can come – or call early elections.
Five Star, whose support has crumbled after a chaotic period running the government and succession to Mr Draghi, would likely suffer terribly in such elections, and many of its MPs, who hate losing their salaries and pensions, would no longer have money for a position.
But as the 2023 election deadline approaches, Five Star also has less to lose and Mr Draghi’s government is likely to face more internal fighting and instability. So it is not entirely surprising that the threat came from Mr Conte.
Mr Conte, a lawyer plucked from obscurity by Five Star and the League to lead the government in 2018, is struggling to gain a foothold as the political leader of what’s left of Five Star.
He is still bitter, MPs say, at being sacked as prime minister in 2021 when he was replaced by Mr Draghi, and he is desperate to rebuild a party that has been squandered and half of has lost its support.
The five-star leader who brought him in as prime minister — Luigi Di Maio, the current foreign minister — left the party last month, taking dozens of members with him. mr. Di Maio, a one-time arsonist, is now following in Mr. Draghi and speaks of the importance of NATO and clearly sees its future in the establishment
Instead, Conte struggles to make it clear to his disgruntled supporters that he can live up to their interests. But he speaks in legalistic terms, is often inconsistent and has the added headache of constantly trying to appease the party’s often unfathomable founder, former comedian Beppe Grillo.
Mr Conte has made it a habit to issue ultimatums to the government. He usually falls in line. But this time it’s not clear that he will.
“The scenario has changed, we need a different phase,” Conte told reporters after failing to reach a compromise during talks with Draghi on Wednesday. “We are ready to support the government, but not to sign a blank bill. Whoever accuses us of irresponsibility should look in his own backyard.”
Among Mr Conte’s objections to the spending priorities, he has argued that the government has not earmarked enough money for a cost-of-living package. Traditionally close to Russia and admiring its president Vladimir V. Putin, Five Star also opposes sending significant military aid to Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion, something Mr Draghi strongly supports.
mr. Reflecting the roots of the Five Star environmentalist, Conte is also vehemently opposed to using public funds to build an incinerator to alleviate Rome’s devastating waste problems.
If Mr Conte had ignited the spark that brought down the government, even the most supportive of Mr Draghi’s parties would not have wanted to get caught up in the conflagration.
Enrico Letta, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, which rose dramatically in the polls when Five Star plummeted, put pressure on Five Star during a party meeting when he said he would not be willing to form a new government without it. them. He added that early elections were preferred if the broad coalition fell apart.
Mr Conte’s former ally, Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League party, said he too would withdraw his support from the coalition government and push for snap elections if Five Star left.
“If a coalition party does not support a government decree, it is enough, enough is enough,” Mr Salvini told Italian television. “It seems clear that we have to go to the elections.”
Yet his support has dwindled, while support for the far-right Brothers of Italy party, led by Giorgia Meloni, has increased. Her party is said to be the biggest beneficiary of snap elections, which she supports.
The earliest time for those elections would be autumn, which would disrupt the usual Italian budget setup and create the unlikely event of Italian politicians campaigning in the summer.