ROME – Italy’s favorite indoor sport is now officially underway again. For the 66th time since the dawn of the Italian Republic in 1946, an average of once every 18 months, a government has fallen and maneuvers to put a new one together are afoot.
Tuesday morning, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met with the President of the Republic, veteran statesman Sergio Mattarella, to submit his resignation. Conte remains the head of government for now to handle routine matters, but it’s up to Mattarella to decide whether to invite Conte to try to form a new government, to invite someone else to do it, or to call for new elections.
Conte came to power in 2018 as a compromise candidate for the top spot after two ideologically divergent forces, the far-right Lega party of Matteo Salvini and the leftist populist Five Star movement of Luigi DiMaio, split the national vote and formed an Odd Couple coalition, with neither of their leaders enjoying sufficient support to claim the Prime Minister’s job for himself.
When Salvini bolted from that deal a year later, Conte was able to stitch together a new coalition between the Five Stars and the Democrats, the country’s main center-left party. From that perch, he’s led Italy through the Coronavirus crisis, winning praise early on for his aggressive measures to contain the pandemic but criticism lately for what’s been perceived as vacillating and inability to launch an equally aggressive stimulus plan.
Triggering the current crisis was former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, formerly of the Democrats and now the head of a small party of his own called Italia Viva, or “Italy Alive.” Renzi withdrew his senators from Conte’s coalition two weeks ago, knowing full well it would likely bring the country to its current impasse.
Ostensibly, Renzi was frustrated over Conte’s unwillingness to fully utilize European Covid recovery funds. Conte has balked because some of those funds are actually loans, and he believes Italy’s public debt is already too high; Renzi argues that in a crisis, beggars can’t be choosers. Many observers, however, believe that Renzi’s real aim is create a scenario in which his party acquires greater influence, or that he himself is able to return to power.
Conte’s plan now seems to be to peel away enough moderate members from both the right and left to form a centrist majority. In Italian terms, that means attracting conservatives who aren’t totally comfortable with the anti-EU and anti-immigrant stances of Salvini, and liberals concerned enough about traditional cultural and national values as to be concerned about some of the other leftist options.
Because this is Italy, there’s another way of describing who Conte is after: “Catholics.”
In the context of Italian politics, the terms doesn’t just refer to somebody who would check the “Catholic” box on a census form, since that’s about 85 percent of the population overall and virtually everyone in public life. It refers to a politician for whom the Church is an important point of reference and who takes Catholic social teaching seriously, whether on immigration and the death penalty or on abortion and marriage.
Mattarella is set to begin consultations with the leaders of the country’s various political forces tomorrow afternoon, in order to determine whether it’s possible for Conte to put together a stable majority. If it seems that he can’t, Mattarella could either invite someone else to try to form a government. If not, he could pass the baton to someone else.
Some are talking about Marta Cartabia, former president of Italy’s Constitutional Court, who would be the first woman Prime Minister; others look to former Prime Minister Enrico Letta, a Democrat who had a 10-month run from late April 2013 to February 2014; some believe the most obvious successor would be Nicola Zingaretti, the current secretary of the Democratic party; and still others dream of a savior figure from outside national political life, such as Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank.
(A fascinating point about Italian politics, by the way, is that Conte was never elected by anyone, and any of those people who might be asked to form a government haven’t run for office either. In most democracies, somebody who wants the country’s top job has to get votes from the people; here, you just need them from parliament.)
If nobody seems able to form a majority, then Mattarella could decide to call for new elections, the most likely outcome of which right now, at least according to opinion polls, would be a narrow victory for the center-right coalition.
Here’s why Catholics outside Italy may have a rooting interest.
To speak just of the US, “Catholics,” in the Italian sense described above, often feel politically homeless. Republicans, especially in the Trump era, come off as too anti-immigrant, too indifferent to the environment, and too uncritical of free-market capitalism and its implications for the world’s poor. Democrats seem too pro-choice, too blasé about religious freedom, and too smug about the concerns of people of faith.
There doesn’t seem to be much hope of an alternative to that Faustian bargain in the US anytime soon; realistically, American Catholics likely will continue to be compelled to decide who represents the lesser of two evils whenever they head to the ballot box.
However, perhaps it would be some consolation to see a government come to power somewhere else which, at least in the “close enough for government work” sense of politics, actually does seem to pass Catholic muster. That might be especially reassuring if it happened in the pope’s own backyard.
We’ll see what the future holds, and whether Conte – by all accounts a serious Catholic himself, whose uncle was a Capuchin friar and assistant to Padre Pio – is the right leader to pull it off. In any event, the mere prospect lends Catholic interest to what might otherwise seem a classic case of Italy just doing what it does, i.e., finding ways to snatch chaos from the jaws of stability.
Follow John Allen on Twitter at @JohnLAllenJr.