Italian PM wins crucial vote in Senate with very thin margin

·4 min read

ROME — Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte won a crucial confidence vote in the Senate late Tuesday, keeping his wobbly coalition afloat for now, but with such a shrunken majority it will make it extremely hard to effectively govern a country reeling from the pandemic.

The vote went 156 to 140 in his favour , There were 16 abstentions, thanks to a coalition ally that bolted the centre -left government last week.

An absolute majority in the Senate is 161, so to pass critical legislation, including aid to help Italy's battered economy, Conte will likely have to resort often on support from outside his coalition.

Had he lost the confidence vote in Parliament's upper chamber, Conte would have been required to resign. But without absolute command of a majority there, he could still opt to hand in his resignation to Italian President Sergio Mattarella, in a bid to be tapped anew to try to cobble together a revamped, more dependable coalition.

In the lower Chamber of Deputies, where the 16-month-old government holds a more comfortable margin, Conte won a first confidence vote on Monday.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

Premier Giuseppe Conte appealed in Parliament for a second straight day Tuesday for crucial support to keep his government afloat after the defection of a small but key coalition party as Italy struggles with a second surge of the COVIC-19 pandemic that has seen citizens subject to months of degrees of lockdown.

"With today’s vote, I trust that the institutions will be able to repay the trust of citizens in order to put behind us this great act of irresponsibility as soon as possible,” Conte said.

He was referring to ex-Premier Matteo Renzi's yanking his small Italia Viva (Italy Alive) centrist party from the centre -left government, in part to protest what Renzi saw was Conte's holding too much control on how more than 200 billion euros (dollars) of European Union recovery funds are spent.

Conte on Monday clinched what amounted to a confidence vote in the lower Chamber of Deputies, securing a 321-259 victory after Renzi's party deputies abstained.

Without the backing of Renzi and his 17 fellow senators, Conte went into Tuesday's vote in the upper chamber of Parliament facing an even more uphill battle for him and his government to stay in power, since the centre -left coalition's majority in the Senate is narrower than what it enjoys in the Chamber of Deputies.

“Numbers are important, today even more so. But even more important is the quality of the political project,’’ Conte said. “We ask all the political forces to help us relaunch with the maximum speed and help us repair the damage to citizens’ trust that the crisis has produced.”

Renzi, in replying to Conte in the Senate Tuesday, hammered away at what he contended was the government's less-than-bold response to fighting the pandemic, including in how funds will be spent to revive Italy's battered economy, already stagnant for years before COVID-19 struck.

"In view of the pandemic, there's a need for a stronger government,” Renzi added in attacking Conte.

But even surviving the Senate vote, Conte’s government still risked being hobbled going forward, since he would have to count on lawmakers outside his coalition to help pass legislation.

Conte largely staked his hope on winning votes from senators outside both his government and the centre -right opposition.

Among those were the tiny ranks of senators-for-life, who only occasionally come to Parliament to cast votes.

In a sign of support, Liliana Segre, a Holocaust survivor and senator-for-life who travelled from Milan to vote. A representative said that Segre, 90, has not yet received a vaccine against the coronavirus. Segre was made a senator-for-life by Italy's president to honour her work in keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive by speaking to students in schools throughout the nation.

The government crisis heightened demands by the opposition for an election two years early. But President Sergio Mattarella is considered unlikely at this point to choose that option, given the difficulty of organizing a campaign and vote during a pandemic.

Conte has boasted of his efforts to secure pandemic-recovery aid from the European Union. In Brussels, EU officials were following Italian political developments with concern.

EU Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis expressed hope that Italy's “political instability would not compromise” Italy's already “substantial” preparation of the recovery plan. He noted that Italy is by far the largest recipient of the pandemic funding.

A key source of irritation between Conte and Renzi has been who gets to control how the pandemic relief funds that hard-hit Italy are spent.

Barry reported from Milan. Nicole Winfield in Rome and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

Frances D'Emilio And Colleen Barry, The Associated Press