Italy’s government collapses so when do I get vaccinated?
It took only one week for my adopted country of Italy to have a more screwed-up government than my old country in the United States.
On Tuesday, Italy’s government collapsed. Prime minister Giuseppe Conte, the popular political outsider who steered Italy from the most Covid-bashed country in the world into calm seas, turned in his resignation. He lost support from a small party with major clout in the Parliament and could not continue without a majority support.
In Italy, news of a fallen prime minister usually has all the impact of a fallen soccer manager. Since World War II, Italy has had 66 governments. For those keeping score at home, that’s almost one a year. However, never has Italy lost its leader in the middle of a global pandemic that has killed nearly 86,000 people in Italy, the fifth highest per capita rate in the world.
It also comes at a time when the government must decide how to spend the 200 billion euros in Covid relief funds allocated from the European Union.
One week after toasting Joe Biden’s inauguration from 5,000 miles away here in Rome, I’m wondering if I’ll ever get vaccinated here in Italy. Due to supply problems, the government announced Monday that the vaccination schedule will move back two to four weeks. My 60-79 age group won’t get vaccinated until at least April.
That’s fine. I’m fine. I have no symptoms. The supermarkets and public markets remain open. But I don’t know when my friends here who lost businesses or jobs will ever get compensation now. Changing governments in the middle of a national health crisis is like trying to change your clothes while being attacked by rabid dogs.
“It’s huge because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” said Irene Caratelli, program director of International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome. “We have to approve the plan how to use the recovery funds for Italy. By April the government should be able to send to Brussels all the guidelines and all the projects and all the details about how Italy can spend those funds.
“Given the fact that Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the recovery funds, the issue is quite relevant.”
What Conte accomplished
As an American expat, I found Conte’s fall disturbing and not just because I fear the possible return to power of Matteo Salvini, a right-wing Donald Trump wannabe who would love to fill the void. I like Conte. A compromise candidate appointed two years ago while a center-right coalition hammered out their differences, he got handed a pandemic that hit Italy harder than any country in the western world. After early missteps, he locked down the country for three months in March and the case and death curves slowly flattened. By summer, I was leading a normal life while my friends in the U.S. were avoiding fistfights from Covid deniers not wearing masks.
Italy became the guiding light for nations seeking to heel.
But I’ve lived in Italy for 8 ½ years over two stints and know a prime minister is only as good as his last bill. When Julius Caesar was stabbed 23 times just two miles from my current apartment, it was a foreshadowing of things to come.
Renzi wanted change
The culprit who stabbed Conte in the back is one Matteo Renzi. He served as prime minister when I arrived in Rome for my current stint in 2014. A member of the center-left Democrat Party, he abruptly resigned when his Constitution reform failed.
Since then he formed the small Italia Viva party that, despite its small size, has numerous powerful senators in Parliament. He became one of Conte’s biggest critics. He hammered Conte for his handling of the pandemic (What?), his feet dragging on the allocation of the EU funds and reluctance to listen to elected Parliament officials. When Renzi pulled his center-left Italia Viva party last week, Conte lost his majority in Parliament.
Conte did receive two votes of confidence in Parliament but not enough to remain comfortably in power. His popularity has fallen. After Italy nearly flattened the Covid curve, his popularity rating was in the mid-60s. One recent poll had him in the mid-40s.
“He’s still higher than anybody else who could be prime minister,” said Eric Lyman, an American freelance journalist in Rome who focuses on politics. “Renzi isn’t highly popular. Salvini is large inside the center right but not overall. Even if Conte is 40 percent or 39 or a Trump range, he’d still be the most popular leader in Italy.”
This crisis could have four possible outcomes:
- Conte could form a similar coalition or a stronger coalition. He remains a member of the Five Star party which is the largest of the five major parties in Italy.
- A similar coalition could form behind a different figure. Renzi’s party is too small and Salvini is too alienating. Luigi Di Maio who was deputy prime minister of the coalition government when Conte took over, would be a candidate. Also possible is Mario Draghi, former head of the European Central Bank, and Marta Cartabia, a former judge.
- Italy president Sergio Mattarella, who has extra power during government crises, could appoint a technocrat government in which a muted prime minister would, as Lyman said, “play it by the book.” The appointee would be a bridge until the next elections in 2022.
- A small possibility are elections. Salvini backs this as he wants back on top. Renzi also is said to want another shot at prime minister. He is only 46.
“Salvini hates (Conte),” Caratelli said. “Part of the center right would like to have the occasion to kick him out.”
After I watched the U.S. split apart at the seams over the past year, right along party lines, I thought what America needed was another party. Maybe the Republican Party will split between moderates and fascists. But then I see where a multiple-party system has taken Italy and I’m not sure.
Italy has five major parties and scores of small ones. If Joe Biden thought it was tough to get a majority in the Senate, try getting a majority among five political parties. And it has been like this here for nearly 80 years.
“It’s historical because of fascism after World War II,” Caratelli said. “The Constitution was written by the major forces from the Communist Party to the liberal socialists and then Christian Democrats. The idea was the structure of the political system should be that of a Democracy where you would not absolutely have a strong leader like the U.S. president because of the fascist past.
“We didn’t want to have a system where all the power was with the prime minister. The idea is that the president of the republic has this huge power together with the prime minister.”
Caratelli said when you have as many as 10 political parties, each party has leverage. Governments form coalitions of various parties but, she said, “These coalitions are fragile.” Thus, you have governments with the shelf life of romaine lettuce.
“That’s very bad,” she said. “If Joe Biden can’t complete, really, most of his plan in four years, because most of the things you do really have effects in the long term, can you imagine one year?”
Maybe Conte returns to power and it’ll all seem like a government reshuffle. But while Biden is steering the U.S. back toward normalcy, Italy is veering all over the road. Again.
January 26, 2021 @ 2:47 pm
Fascinating! Thanks for explaining what’s happening in Italy politics.
January 26, 2021 @ 3:22 pm
Excellent political analysis, John–especially for a sports and travel writer! You’ve obviously been paying attention during your semi-retirement in Rome. It certainly helps that you learned Italian well enough to read the local papers. (Something I wish I had done better during our stint.)
I used to teach a graduate course at DU on comparative European foreign and defense policies. This included some background on the political situation of each major country. The students for each night’s presentation team were encouraged to bring in refreshments appropriate to their country. On Italian night the poor students’ attempts to explain some sort of structure or explanation for what was going on in Italian politics was always amusing to watch, but it was then always followed by excellent food and wine. (The only subject in that class more difficult to explain was how the EU operates. Completely unfathomable.)
By the way: living in Rome for 4 1/2 years did not make Italian domestic politics any more understandable. We just ignored it and enjoyed la bella vita. Too bad more Americans don’t take that attitude here at home.
John H. Henderson
January 27, 2021 @ 5:52 am
Thanks, Jo Ann. How are you doing?
January 26, 2021 @ 3:18 pm
I honestly don’t do anger much but I am really pissed off at the idiotic politicians who pushed Giuseppe Conte out. He was the VERY BEST leader we could have hoped for during a pandemic. Italy has not had such a DECENT LEADER since Marcus Aurelius for heaven’s sake! To push him out and create turmoil in the government when we still in such a crucial stage of fighting the pandemic is ludicrous.
John H. Henderson
January 27, 2021 @ 5:54 am
Good line about Aurelius. You’re right. Italian politics is as rife with jealousy as during Trump’s administration. That’s basically what this is about. I liked Conte. I know people have lost their trust in him with so many late compensation checks but he pulled off a miracle with Covid. Give the guy some credit. Plus, as you say, he’s a calming influence. If I lived in the U.S. I’d be terrified.
January 26, 2021 @ 9:37 pm
Outstanding analysis, Iohn. I learned a lot reading this. Like you, I have often wondered if a viable third party would boost American politics… and now I think … hmm, maybe not!
John H. Henderson
January 27, 2021 @ 5:57 am
Thanks, John. What are politics in Vietnam like? A communist government doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. Read Thomas Friedman’s column in The New York Times about the future of the Republican Party. He wrote that there’s so much infighting within, that it should split between the moderates and the radicals, as I wrote. It makes sense. There are some rational-thinking Republicans. They want nothing to do with the mob that stormed the Capitol or hate Black Lives Matter. And the radical right wants nothing to do with them. Split it up. I think three would work. Five in Italy does not.
January 26, 2021 @ 10:49 pm
Ben fatto, Giovanni – una belle spiegazione delle bruttissime situazione in italia! Spero che Conte possa sopravvivere
John H. Henderson
January 27, 2021 @ 6:00 am
Grazie, Michele. Era difficile. Ho cercato tutto giorno e ho scritto il blog in due ore perche ho avuto un treno alla casa di Marina alle 21.00. Ma la mia esperienza in giornali ha auiutato.
January 28, 2021 @ 4:54 am
Maybe you have to be an American (I am) to appreciate how deft Conte was in managing a pandemic in its early stages. We were in Italy last spring and back in the States May-mid-Jan, and the contrast was stark to say the least.
January 29, 2021 @ 1:07 pm
Thank you for this. We bought a home in Italy at the end of 2019 and have been longing to return to it. I have long understood /noticed the relative instability of the Italian Government but have often wondered what the real impacts are on most Italians. Are my observations correct that most Italians have a minimum standard of life? Housing, healthcare and food? Or is homelessness and poverty hidden? I am from the Silicon Valley now living in Florida via 10 years on Cape Cod. The minimum standard of living in the US is elusive for a minimum of 10% of our people and some would estimate up to 40% if we add low income…
January 31, 2021 @ 10:43 am
I read your article and must say I felt very disappointed in your arguments, first I am a Brit and have been living in Italy for the last 40 years, have witnessed the fall of many of the governments you mentioned. From the Red Brigade and assasination of Muro, and the connection between the Red Brigade and Politics, never fully proved but hey Andreotti’s trial lasted for 13 years. Then to the assasination by the Mafia of Falcone and Borsellino always with a political connection, again never proven????
I seriously dont get too involved in Italian Politics cos its so confusing, how can we really know whos doing a good job or not, how can we know how capable they are as most of the people in parliament are new and in their previous lives sold drinks in the football stadium or worked as personal trainers and now we find them making serious decisions for our future. No doubt this period with Covid would have been difficult for any government so we have to believe they have done a good job. But can you not help asking yourself are they really capable or making these decisions or are they just hanging on to their parlimentary seats???? after all 5stars first allied with Salvini far right then jumped the fence and allied with PD which I hasten to add never came near to winning the election. ??? does that not sound strange to you?? So you like Conte, please dont be offended, but who cares if you like Conte, the real question is, how capable is he of dealing with this crisis, for the benefit of the people??? Talking of De Maio(sold drinks in stadium) and Draghi (who has an impressive curriculum as long as your arm)is like the difference between chalk and cheese.
Lets just wish the best future possible for this beautiful country that we have adopted, and hope that Italy finds a solid government capable of making the right decisions for the good of the people.