Italy’s Premier Allies Optimistic on Math For Survival

(Bloomberg) -- Officials campaigning on behalf of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte are cautiously optimistic that he may be able to survive a vote in the Senate on Tuesday, despite being abandoned by a junior ally in his coalition.

Conte needs about a dozen more votes in the upper house to restore an outright majority in the 321-strong upper chamber after the defection of a group led by former premier Matteo Renzi. With Renzi’s 18 senators expected to abstain, Conte could squeak through with just a handful of extra votes, but his authority would be seriously weakened.

At least 12 senators are already leaning toward joining Conte’s camp, according to officials with knowledge of the lobbying effort. The situation remains uncertain and the numbers could change right up until the vote, said the officials, who asked not to be named discussing confidential discussions.

Conte’s surrogates are targeting centrists from a group of unaffiliated senators, members of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party and even some of Renzi’s own group. Several members of Renzi’s Italy Alive party have said they regret joining his 2019 breakaway from the Democrats and are worried they may lose their seats if his brinkmanship leads to a snap election, officials said.

Read More: Clock Ticks for Italy’s Conte as He Braces for Senate Vote

Conte is facing votes in the lower house and the Senate on Monday and Tuesday to demonstrate he still has enough support to govern as he battles the coronavirus pandemic and a brutal recession. Renzi’s party has only 3% support in opinion polls but was critical to Conte’s Senate majority.

Renzi has repeatedly said over the last hours that Conte does not have the numbers to reach a majority. “The government is far from 161 votes in the Senate,” he said in an interview with Messaggero Saturday.

If the premier fails to produce an outright majority, the political crisis will drag on with more negotiations and potentially a new premier backed by the Five Star Movement and the Democrats, a national unity government or snap elections.

Even if the vote will allow Conte to survive, the Democratic Party has been calling for changes including agreeing on a new governing pact to continue to support the government.

President Sergio Mattarella, who would oversee the process of forging a new government, has pressured Conte to ensure a quick resolution and insisted he must have a stable majority if he is to remain premier, officials said. Mattarella has said he doesn’t want to see Conte relying on a ragtag assortment of lawmakers from across the political spectrum and would rather see a new parliamentary group created to ensure as much stability as possible, the officials said.

One option would see new supporters gather under an umbrella group called “MAIE-Italia23” -- a reference to the end of the current parliament’s term in 2023 -- which was launched on Friday by Ricardo Merlo, an undersecretary at the foreign ministry.

Although there was no plenary session in the Senate on Friday, the palace in the center of Rome where the lawmakers sit was abuzz with a sense of intrigue as people clustered in its opulent hallways and whispered into their mobile phones.

Snap Election Threat

To bring senators on board, Conte’s supporters -- chiefly from the center-left Democratic Party and other centrists -- have been warning of the risk of a snap election, which would likely see a center-right alliance take power, officials said.

They’ve also argued that calling a general election in the middle of a global pandemic would damage Italy’s international credibility and risk unnerving investors and urged senators instead to focus on approving a plan to spend the windfall from the European Union’s recovery fund.

The game of musical chairs is not all one way. Some lawmakers from Five Star, the biggest force in the coalition, are considering defecting to join the center-right opposition led by Matteo Salvini of the anti-migrant League, according to a lawmaker from the bloc. Five Star’s support has collapsed in opinion polls and many of the party’s lawmakers would be likely to lose their seats if there was a snap election. Renzi reiterated in the interview Saturday that he doesn’t expects Italy to vote in coming months.

Conte has yet to say whether he will seek formal votes of confidence in both houses of parliament or simply ask lawmakers to back the remarks he makes at the start of the debates, officials said. If the premier were to lose a formal vote of confidence he would have to submit his resignation to Mattarella.

(Updates with comments by Renzi, Democrats officials)