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Italy PM Giuseppe Conte resigns as his coalition government becomes the latest COVID-19 casualty

Italian Prime Minister Conte resigns
Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigns 05:42

Rome — As the coronavirus pandemic death toll soars globally, the latest victim is the Italian government. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte resigned, sparking a political crisis while the country is deep in the throes of its COVID-19 epidemic. 

Conte's center-left coalition government started to wobble last week when former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi pulled the support of his splinter party, denying Conte an absolute governing majority. Renzi had chastised Conte over his handling of the health crisis and the economic recovery plan. 

Last spring, Italy was the epicenter of the global pandemic, and it became the first country to impose a national lockdown in a bid to contain the virus — despite the crippling blow that delivered to the economy. 

The effort appeared successful as the contagion and the death rate slowed significantly over the summer. But last fall, after the government loosened lockdown restrictions, cases and mortality began to spike, and the second wave proved even worse than the first. 

Inside a Rome hospital gripped by the coronavirus pandemic 01:54

The death toll currently stands at more than 85,000 people. In a country of 60 million, that makes it the fifth highest COVID-19 death rate, per capita, in the world. 

Given the early onset of the virus in Italy, the economy has been struggling with the effects of the pandemic for longer than most other nations. It's the biggest beneficiary of a European Union investment plan for economic recovery from the coronavirus, with Rome due to receive roughly $243 billion in EU funding. 

Prime Minister Conte fought with Renzi's party, his smaller coalition ally, over how to spend the EU recovery funds, and Renzi pulled out of the coalition. 

Matteo Renzi at Tv Show Porta a Porta
Italian politician Matteo Renzi appears on the Porta a Porta television broadcast in Rome, February 19, 2020. In the background is an image of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. Massimo Di Vita/Archivio Massimo Di Vita/Mondadori Portfolio/Getty

But despite alleged shortcomings of Conte's government, polling shows Italians still largely approve of his leadership and disapprove of upsetting the applecart at such a critical time in the country's history, when hundreds of Italians are dying daily, businesses are facing bankruptcy and vaccinations are taking longer than expected. 

Conte may not be gone for good. He's expected to try to cobble together a new, broader coalition of lawmakers to fill the gap left by Renzi's party. 

For a political newcomer, Conte has shown uncanny survival skills. Few Italians had heard of the obscure law professor when he was appointed in 2018 to lead a coalition between Italy's two biggest populist parties, the 5-Star Movement and the anti-migrant League party.

In 2019, the League pulled its backing and tried to force elections. But Conte brokered a new alliance, bringing Renzi's center-left Democratic Party onboard. 

Notoriously unstable, Italy has had 66 different governments since World War II.

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