Outbreaks haunt leader of Italy, others trying to hold on to power

ROME — Italy’s pro-U.S. government is hanging on by a thread, battered by criticism about its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it plans to spend billions of dollars to help the European Union recover.

Governmental crises in Rome are nothing new, but the pandemic has forced Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to confront the struggle to contain the ravages of the disease and the hurdles in obtaining and distributing potentially lifesaving vaccines.

President Trump’s handling of the crisis played a major role in his unsuccessful campaign for reelection. Candidates facing voters this year in Iran, Israel, Germany and elsewhere also could find the pandemic to be a make-or-break issue.

Mr. Trump once described Mr. Conte as “a good friend,” but support for the prime minister has withered in recent weeks as attacks against him mounted.

Matteo Renzi, a former Italian prime minister whose small political party, Italia Viva, had been a key member of Mr. Conte’s coalition, withdrew its support last week. The move took away the coalition’s slender majority in the Senate, leaving Mr. Conte scrambling to find replacements.

Mr. Conte cleared a key first hurdle Monday when he narrowly won a confidence vote in Parliament’s lower house on a 321-259 vote. In a speech before the vote, he acknowledged that the government’s COVID-19 response had not been perfect but turned the tables on his detractors by accusing them of playing political games when “the pandemic is still in full course.”

“If I can speak in the name of the whole government, with head high, it is not out of the arrogance of someone who believes not to have made errors,” Mr. Conte told lawmakers. “It is out of awareness of how the whole government put all of its physical and mental energy into best protecting the nation.”

He faces another test Tuesday in the Senate, and political analysts say it will be much tougher for the government to win the vote.

“Conte has managed to survive for 2½ years despite small majorities and fragile institutions,” said Giovanni Orsina, director of the School of Government at Rome’s Luiss-Guido Carli University. “This could be the situation that brings it down.”

Italy was the first country hit hard by the coronavirus when it spread beyond China’s borders, and it remains among those that have suffered the most. As of Sunday, COVID-19 had claimed more than 82,000 lives in Italy, second in Europe only to the United Kingdom.

With nearly 1,400 deaths per 1 million people, Italy’s per capita morbidity rate is the highest in the world among countries with more than 12 million residents. The U.S., despite criticisms heaped on the Trump administration, has about 1,225 deaths per 1 million residents.

Conte takes the blame

Much of the blame for those trends has fallen at the feet of Mr. Conte, who in March became the first European leader to issue a national lockdown in peacetime in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. The strategy had mixed results, but it became a blueprint for most other industrialized countries facing the COVID-19 threat.

Italy was the biggest recipient of European Union recovery funds last year, including more than $100 billion in grants and another $150 billion in low-interest loans. That cash could be a much-needed boost for an economy that, as of the end of the year, had shrunk to its size in 1998. Confindustria, Italy’s main industrial association, has estimated that more than a third of the businesses shuttered during the pandemic will not reopen.

Mr. Conte has pledged to direct the money to ecological initiatives alongside programs for better digitalization, innovation, mass transit, gender issues and economic development in the poorer southern parts of the country. But Mr. Renzi and other critics in populist parties now allied with the opposition say the money will be squandered.

Aides to Mr. Renzi, a former center-left president who struck up a bond with President Obama, said they are open to rejoining the coalition if Mr. Conte will make certain guarantees on how recovery funds are spent. But Mr. Conte’s allies say they are wary of relying on an unpredictable ally.

If the government Mr. Conte leads fails to win Tuesday’s vote, then the result could be snap elections, something that would be a challenge during a pandemic. Right-wing populist parties that have long been circling the Conte coalition could finally take power.

President Sergio Mattarella could also ask Mr. Conte or another figure — former European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi’s name keeps popping up, though Mr. Draghi, 73, said he is not interested — to try cobble together a majority among members of the existing parliament. Mr. Mattarella could also seek to form a nonpolitical technocrat government until elections can be held.

Although the Trump administration was broadly unpopular in Europe, Mr. Conte’s government was a reliable ally of the U.S. president.

Riccardo Puglisi, an economist in the Department of Political Science at the University of Pavia, said Italy’s next prime minister will have the challenge of convincing the incoming Biden administration that Rome in recent years has been a friend of the U.S. in general and not specifically an ally of Mr. Biden’s polarizing predecessor.

“Under Conte, Italy was the one country European Union member state Trump could count on,” Mr. Puglisi said. “President-elect Biden is respected in Italy, and whoever is in charge after this crisis, especially if Conte manages to remain in power, will have to show they are just as willing to work with the Biden White House as they were with Trump.”

Mr. Orsina said that if a hobbled Mr. Conte emerges from the crisis in charge or if a surprise figure is put in charge, Italy could be at a disadvantage with the U.S. as Mr. Biden looks to build consensus for its foreign policy initiatives in Europe.

“When it comes to U.S. relations, this is not a good time for Italy to be having a government crisis,” Mr. Orsina said. “You could imagine a situation where U.S. officials in their outreach wonder who they should speak to in Italy.”

Mr. Conte expressed optimism Monday in his address to the Chamber of Deputies that the new administration in Washington would be an ally.

“I already have had a long and warm phone conversation with him,” Mr. Conte said. He added that the Biden agenda is “our agenda,” The Associated Press reported.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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