In Italy, Conte’s coronavirus honeymoon comes to a close

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ROME — For months, it seemed Giuseppe Conte could do no wrong.

As the Italian prime minister waged battle against the coronavirus epidemic, political opponents heeded calls for unity, halted their attacks and reigned in their criticism.

In March, approval for Conte’s measures to combat the virus stood at 94 percent, and his personal ratings climbed to 71 percent.

But as Italy’s health emergency begins to recede and signs of the impending economic catastrophe move into sharp focus, Conte’s coronavirus honeymoon appears to be coming to a close.

Regional governments, industrial lobbies and the Catholic church are revolting against the government’s plans to slowly lift Italy’s lockdown restrictions, accusing Conte of moving too slowly and standing in the way of the country’s recovery.

The opposition has occupied parliament in protest of the remaining lockdown restrictions. And even members of Conte’s coalition — an unstable alliance between the anti-establishment 5Star Movement, the center-left Democratic Party and the liberal Italia Viva party — have threatened to pull the plug on the government unless it steps up the pace.

Critics also blame Conte for failing to resolve delays in the arrival of financial assistance, off-loading key decisions to task forces and abusing his emergency powers.

The sheer scale of the potential economic disaster ahead has eroded faith in the prime minister’s ability to steer the country through it, according to Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster at YouTrend.

“The more that public opinion shifts from the health to the social and economic crisis, the more Conte risks losing consensus,” said Pregliasco.

As Italians begin to emerge from the eye of the epidemic’s storm, they are increasingly worried about their economic future.

Last week, Fitch lowered Italy’s credit rating to BBB, just one notch above junk. First-quarter results showed that GDP contracted 4.7 percent, and the government revised down its economic forecasts to a GDP contraction that could be as bad as 10 percent.

Although Conte claimed victory late April after negotiating with European leaders to grant Italy access funds from the European Stability Mechanism without conditions, the Italian media has continued to speculate that any assistance could come with “strengthened oversight,” recalling the specter of the Troika that imposed devastating cuts on Greece.

For those hoping for a quick return to normal to offset the worst of the economic impact, the limited easing of lockdown measures has been disappointing, especially in the south where there have been relatively few cases of the virus.

Families and stable partners can now visit each other. Parks have reopened, and takeaways from bars and restaurants are now allowed. But churches remain shut, earning Conte a harsh rebuke from the Catholic bishops association. Schools will stay closed until September, leaving working parents at a loss for childcare.

About 4 million people, mainly construction and manufacturing workers, are back at work, but the powerful federation of employers, Confindustria, has accused the government of lacking a return-to-work plan, citing its failure to begin immunity tests or app-based contact tracing. Meanwhile, Italy’s lifeblood, its small and medium-sized shops and businesses, mostly remain shuttered.

With discontent growing, regional authorities last week defied the central government to move ahead with their own ad hoc rules. In some areas, visiting second homes is now allowed.

The president of Calabria, Jole Santelli, went the furthest, with an order allowing restaurants and bars with outdoor seating to open.

Santelli, of the center-right Forza Italia party, points out what she sees as an injustice: Wealthier industrial states with many cases of the virus are getting back to work before the economically fragile regions with few cases.

“Everyone knows about coronavirus and social distancing now. We have to trust people to act responsibly and begin learning to live alongside it,” she told POLITICO.

“Our territory doesn’t have industry,” she added. “It is a service economy with small and medium sized businesses, for whom a few weeks can make all the difference between surviving or not.”

Pushback against the lockdown has made it clear that Conte’s political opponents are tired of playing nice.

“This government has avoided taking decisions and failed to get financial support to those that need it,” said Guido Guidesi, a senior MP for the far-right League. “This government has, in practice, put zero euros in the pockets of citizens and business. That is the truth, and that is the problem.”

Guidesi was one of dozens of MPs from the party who occupied the parliament last week, vowing to stay there until the lockdown measures are lifted before calling it off in time for the bank holiday weekend.

The government is “incapable of managing an economic emergency like the one we are witnessing,” he added, predicting a larger shift in the Italian political landscape.

If the public grows increasingly impatient and worried about the economic impact, that groundswell could indeed “provide the trigger” for a government collapse in the months ahead, said Pregliasco, of YouTrend, who predicted catastrophic unemployment figures and a steep increase in businesses filing for bankruptcy.

Conte’s stratospheric popularity during the crisis has also attracted attacks from the coalition he depends on to stay in office.

Matteo Renzi, who leads the liberal Italia Viva party and is a long-term critic of Conte, threatened on Thursday to bring down the government and accused Conte of "populist paternalism" for keeping Italians "under virtual house arrest" for months rather than finding solutions to save jobs.

"There is a vast reconstruction that needs to happen that will require courageous choices and vision, not remaining stationary as we have done so far," he said.

Renzi also claimed Conte was more concerned with Facebook followers and polls than unemployment data, warning: "If you choose the road of populism, of saying what people want to hear, we will not be by your side."

For now, it is unlikely that Renzi or others would want to assume responsibility for opening up a power vacuum during an emergency.

“To have a crisis at this time, would be unthinkable. The public would not understand it,” said an adviser to former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

As Conte said in an interview with La Stampa on Sunday, “instability [at a time of emergency and economic difficulty] would be a serious damage for the country that we cannot allow ourselves.”

Constant speculation about a new government of technocrats or of national unity “is part of the Italian political game,” he said.

If Renzi’s MPs were to withdraw support for the government, wiping out its majority in the Senate, Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia party could prop up the government in the short term, according to the Berlusconi adviser. But this would be a short-term measure.

“There will come a moment when the economic problem becomes unbearable, when we have to think of a government of unity,” said the adviser.

Italy historically has relied on technocratic governments to take over and take tough decisions during crises. President Sergio Mattarella would almost certainly seek to find out if there was a majority for a government of national unity or a technocratic government, rather than call snap elections.

Members of the far-right League have pushed for Mario Draghi, the former president of the European Central Bank, to lead such an executive. “We completely support his proposed measures to prevent the economic crisis from becoming a structural crisis that would leave workers and companies abandoned,”said Guidesi, the League MP.

But it is by no means certain that Draghi would even want the role — one that is certain to be difficult and unpopular, as recollections of former Prime Minister Mario Monti’s drastic cuts to public services and pensions are still fresh in the memory of Italians.

Any government of national unity would find it hard to reach agreement on important issues such as accepting help from Europe, and would face crossfire from political forces outside the government.

For now, as the government limps on, Conte could still quell the critics if his slow-and-steady strategy proves successful in balancing pressure to re-open the economy with the need to curb infections.

Other countries, such as Germany and Singapore, have seen the number of new cases rise rapidly following the lifting of certain containment measures.

Their example may help justify Conte’s more cautious approach to his detractors. But as worries of economic disaster grow, that caution may not be enough to keep the political peace.

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