A year ago, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte faced several domestic political crises and headed an unstable government made up of two parties that had spent the past five years as sworn and contentious enemies. Few in Rome believed that it would last much longer than six months.
Twelve months later and in the middle of a pandemic, to the surprise of many, Conte is still leading this rickety coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. However, after receiving praise for his calm handling of the greatest economic and health crises in Italian post-war history, he is now facing the greatest challenge of his term in office.
Conte, a softly spoken law professor who was once ridiculed as a janitor, is well on the way to becoming one of Italy’s ten longest-serving prime ministers since the end of World War II. In six months he will be in office longer than his predecessor, but one, Matteo Renzi, a result that most Italian experts would have thought impossible last year.
“From the beginning [coronavirus] During the crisis, Conte’s communication strategy was to be very strict and honest with the country, and in this way he embodied the authority that the people wanted at the time, ”said Valentina Gentile, Assistant Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Luiss in Rome.
On Sunday, after a renewed outbreak of coronavirus cases, which Italy apparently had previously held back, and with public unrest in the streets, the Prime Minister broadcast the kind of overt television address that had loved him among the Italian people the first phase of the Crisis.
This time around, the response to new restrictions that included restaurants and bars closing at 6 p.m. for a month was less sympathetic. Italy’s right-wing opposition took the new measures heralding a return to a partial national lockdown as evidence that Conte’s much-acclaimed response to the first wave had indeed not worked.
When it became known that Conte’s trusted spokesman and spin doctor Rocco Casalino had tested positive for coronavirus, Anti-Migration League party leader Matteo Salvini went to Italy’s airwaves to condemn the measures, arguing they were continuing an already battered economy ruin.
Salvini threatened legal action to overturn Mr Conte’s decree, saying the closure of restaurants that had invested heavily in compliance to stop the spread of the coronavirus was treason. “Why are you taking it out on her?” He asked. Salvini posted social media footage of struggling restaurant owners explaining their plight.
Giorgia Meloni, leader of opposition Brothers of Italy party, said Conte’s government should immediately pay money to companies that would be damaged by the new measures. “Conte has a duty to apologize and compensate her,” she said. “It is not right to criminalize an entire sector after the state has given them certain prescriptions so that they can safely reopen.”
Daniele Albertazzi, a reader of politics at the University of Birmingham, said Conte benefited from being perceived as an outsider to the Italian political system in a country where suspicions of career politicians are deeply ingrained.
“Like many other leaders in Europe, Conte had fun [an] Increased popularity, but he also played it well. He’s grown and surprised people, ”said Albertazzi. “But this time is different from February or March. The economy is being hit very hard and people are getting very tired of the restrictions. “
The strongest demonstration of this fatigue came over the weekend when isolated riots broke out in Naples, the largest city in southern Italy, in response to the prospect of new restrictions. On Saturday evening, a group of demonstrators, some of whom were affiliated with fringe right-wing groups, threw objects at police in Rome.
Protests against Conte’s new measures broke out across Italy on Monday evening. Footage from Milan showed a small group throwing a Molotov cocktail at a police car. In the southern city of Lecce, a group of demonstrators rushed to a police barricade and sang “Freedom, Freedom”.
Conte was also attacked for his testimony over the weekend that the measures would enable the Italians to have a “quiet” Christmas. Right-wing politician and journalist Renato Farina wrote that the prime minister had threatened Italians with “coal for Christmas if we want to be bad citizens and disobey” and “turn citizens into children”.
Gentile argues that despite mounting unrest in Italy over the renewed spike in Covid-19 cases, Conte still remains in a strong position politically, as neither party in the ruling coalition wants elections soon given the right-wing leadership and opposition holds in opinion polls .
In a country where political fate is notoriously volatile, the reputation Conte gained in the first Covid-19 outbreak will quickly tarnish should he lose control of the situation. “How he deals with the situation from here will be decisive,” says Gent Gentile.
Albertazzi warns that history shows that even “outsider” politicians who Italians enthusiastically refer to as a break with the status quo can just as easily be excluded from the national scene.
“We saw that [the economist and former prime minister] Mario Monti, ”he said. “People who come from outside politics are always very attractive at the beginning because Italians loathe political classes. But then people get tired of them quickly. “- Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020
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