Italian PM Conte faces challenge as Renzi again disrupts

ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte is facing a challenge to his government’s survival, with a junior partner threatening to pull its support just as Italy is battling a resurgence of the virus and a recession, and is launching a huge mass vaccination program.

For weeks, ex-Premier Matteo Renzi has criticized Conte’s plans for using European Union pandemic recovery funds and centralizing government decision-making. If Renzi follows through on threats to yank his small Italy Alive party’s support from the government, the crisis would force Conte into a number of unwelcome scenarios, including a Cabinet reshuffle, a confidence vote in parliament to see if he still has a majority, or tendering his resignation.

At that point, Italy’s president would have to hold talks with political parties to determine whether to ask Conte to try to form a new government, install a technical government or call a new early election. The last option is considered unlikely, given Italy’s surging coronavirus infections.

Renzi’s two ministers in the government abstained from a Cabinet vote late Tuesday approving the outlays of the EU funds. Renzi has planned a press conference later Wednesday.

Renzi has faced criticism that he is irresponsibly provoking a government crisis at a time when the government is already struggling to contain the outbreak, get Italians vaccinated and keep the Italian economy from further collapse.

Renzi claims he is merely doing what’s best for the country, not seeking power for himself.

“What we’re doing is called POLITICS: studying the cards and making proposals,” he tweeted.

But Renzi has pulled similar power plays before. He became Italian premier in 2014 after he maneuvered to have the ruling Democratic Party remove Enrico Letta as premier and put him in the office instead. Renzi, though, lost a political gamble two years later when he staked his premiership on a constitutional referendum that failed, forcing him to resign.

On Wednesday, Health Minister Roberto Speranza referred to the “useless” government tensions in a briefing to parliament on Italy’s vaccine campaign and the planned extension of COVID-19 restrictions. He appealed for a constructive political climate to confront the greatest health emergency the country has seen in a century.

“The objective that we are attempting to reach is too important to sully it with useless polemics that hurt everyone, and in particular the Italians who, with the vaccine, can and must get out of this long nightmare that we are living,” he said.