Italy PM Conte defends record, faces do-or-die vote in parliament

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Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, looking to save his government after a junior partner quit the coalition, defended on Monday his handling of both the coronavirus emergency and the knock-on economic crisis.

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Former premier Matteo Renzi pulled his small Italia Viva party out of the cabinet last week, saying he was unhappy with Conte’s plans for reviving the economy.

Addressing the lower house of parliament, Conte said there was “no plausible justification” for Renzi's decision and warned that the political turmoil risked inflicting serious damage on Italy at one of the most critical moments in modern history.

Conte faces a do-or-die vote in the lower house on Monday, with a second vote set for the upper house Senate on Tuesday.

Attention is especially focused on the 321-seat Senate, where Conte looks certain to fall short of an absolute majority after his efforts to persuade centrists in opposition ranks to rally to his side looked to have failed.

Votes will be held in both chambers, with Conte struggling to fill the hole left by the defection of Renzi and his party.

At least three of the upper house’s six life senators are expected to back the government, including 90-year-old Holocaust survivor Liliana Segre, but at present the most optimistic tally puts Conte on 157 votes, four short of an absolute majority.

However, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, a leading light in the largest coalition party, the 5-Star Movement, has said even a relative majority would do.

“It is a majority. The absolute majority is only needed for (votes on) budget changes and very few other acts. And when we need it, we will find it,” he told Corriere della Sera daily.

A minority government will always find itself at the mercy of parliament, but Conte hopes that if he can overcome Tuesday’s threat, centrist parliamentarians will drift into his camp over time and bolster his position.

Italia Viva has said it will return to the coalition if its policy demands are met. “Our problems can be sorted out in two hours,” party lawmaker Ettore Rosato told Sky Italia TV.

However, both 5-Star and its main coalition ally, the center-left Democratic Party (PD), have said they want nothing more to do with Renzi, accusing him of betrayal.

There also seems little chance that 5-Star will accept a key Renzi demand - that Italy apply for a loan from the euro zone’s bailout fund, known as the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) -- to help its health service deal with COVID-19.

The pandemic has killed 82,177 Italians, the second highest toll in Europe and sixth highest in the world.

“I will never vote for a government that considers itself the best in the world, that has seen 82,000 deaths and has not taken the ESM,” Renzi told state broadcaster RAI on Sunday.

Critics of the loan scheme say it could come with unwelcome conditions and note that no other EU state has tapped the fund.

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