ROME -- A former leader of Italy yanked his party's ministers Wednesday from Premier Giuseppe Conte's government, triggering a political crisis in the middle of a pandemic that could lead to a revamped Cabinet, a different coalition leader or the early election eagerly sought by right-wing opposition parties.
Matteo Renzi, who served as premier from Feb. 2014 to Dec. 2016 and leads the small centrist Italy Alive party, had been chafing for weeks at what he saw as Conte's heavy hand in deciding how some 200 billion euros ($243 billion) in European Union funding would be used to help pull Italy out of years of economic stagnation worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Renzi, while announcing that the farm and family ministers and Cabinet undersecretary were bolting from the 16-month-old center-left government, said he had enough of Conte's frequent governing through decrees instead of turning to Parliament.
“Italy Alive didn't provoke the political crisis,” Renzi told reporters, putting the blame for the coalition government's unraveling on Conte's methods.
“We won't allow anyone to have full powers," said Renzi, who governed as the head of his former party, the Democrats.
It was unclear if Conte, a lawyer who specializes in mediation, would try to negotiate with Renzi or tender his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella. For weeks, the president has exhorted the government to focus on dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated the problems of Italy's flat economy.
Renzi’s two ministers in the government abstained from a Cabinet vote late Tuesday to approve a draft plan for using the EU funds. Before Renzi's announcement, Conte had expressed the desire to sit down with his coalition partners to work out a solution.
“A (government) crisis wouldn't be understood by the country,” Conte told reporters.
Nicola Zingaretti, the leader of the Democrats, who are a key partner in Conte's coalition, noted that Italy on Wednesday registered more than 500 additional COVID-19 deaths, pushing the country's known death toll in the pandemic past 80,000. Renzi's political move “goes against the country,” he said.
If Conte or someone appointed by Italy's president to replace him can't muster enough support in Parliament, Mattarella could dissolve Parliament, paving the way for an early election. Opinion surveys indicate that an election could bring to power an alliance of right-wing and far-right nationalist forces.
“Resign, Conte. Elections immediately,” read a Facebook post by Giorgia Meloni, the head of the nationalist Brothers of Italy, which has its roots in a neo-fascist party and is rapidly growing in popularity.
Opinion polls have consistently shown that any quick return to the ballot box would reward the far-right Brothers of Italy and the right-wing League party led by Matteo Salvini, a former interior minister who promoted policies to stem illegal immigration to Italy.
“The right (wing) of Salvini and Meloni are uncorking the Champagne,'' tweeted a prominent Democratic Party lawmaker, Michele Bordo.
The largest party in Parliament that belongs to Conte's coalition is the populist 5-Star Movement. Before the current coalition government, Conte led a different, uneasy one forged out of Salvini's euroskeptic League and the rival 5-Stars. Conte's first government collapsed when Salvini exited the coalition in a failed maneuver to gain the premiership for himself.
Mattarella could also ask a non-political figure to try to form a government. Political commentators have mentioned two names: Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, and Marta Cartabia, who formerly headed Italy's constitutional court.
During his 75-minute-long news conference, Renzi blasted what he described as a weak defense of democratic institutions by Conte when compared to the condemnations issued by the leaders of Germany, Britain and France after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Renzi became Italian premier in 2014 after he maneuvered the governing Democratic Party to oust Enrico Letta. In 2016, Renzi gambled and lost when he staked his premiership on a constitutional referendum that failed, forcing him to resign.
He later formed Italy Alive, which, has enough support in the Senate to make his party count in Conte's government.
Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.