ROME — The broad national unity government led by Prime Minister Mario Draghi, which has expanded Italy’s footprint in Europe, guided it through a successful vaccination campaign and injected competence and confidence into the country, suddenly wobbled on Thursday as the remnants of Italy’s recent anti-establishment and populist past threatened to pull their support.
Mr. Draghi’s predecessor as prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, the leader of the mostly imploded Five Star Movement, threatened to abstain from a confidence vote Thursday connected to the government’s spending priorities.
Mr. Draghi opted for the vote in an effort to call Mr. Conte’s bluff and measure the support of other wavering parties. He has made clear that he would not let the unity government be held ransom to Five Star’s own priorities and demands — and that he would not lead a unity government that had no unity.
“A government does not work with ultimatums, it loses the point of its existence,” Mr. Draghi, who is also a former head of the European Central Bank, said at a news conference this week.
If the government loses the confidence vote, Mr. Draghi would almost certainly offer his resignation to the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella.
Mr. Mattarella could then ask him to form a new government with a simple cabinet shuffle, or ask a different person to try to form a new government — a move that is unlikely because no one has anywhere near the broad support of Mr. Draghi — or call for early elections.
Five Star, whose support crumbled after a chaotic spell running the government and Mr. Draghi’s succession, would most likely suffer terribly in such elections, and many of its members of Parliament, who are loath to lose their paychecks and pensions, would be out of a job.
But as the 2023 deadline for elections draws nearer, Five Star also has less to lose, and Mr. Draghi’s government is likely to face more internecine fighting and instability. So it is not entirely surprising that the threat came from Mr. Conte.
Mr. Conte, a lawyer plucked from obscurity by Five Star and the League to lead the government in 2018, has struggled to find his footing as a political leader of what is left of Five Star.
He is still bitter, members of Parliament say, over being pushed out as prime minister in 2021, when he was replaced by Mr. Draghi, and he is desperate to rebuild a party that has wasted away, hemorrhaging half of its support.
The Five Star leader who brought him in as prime minister — Luigi Di Maio, the current foreign minister — quit the party last month, taking dozens of members with him. Mr. Di Maio, a onetime firebrand, now follows in Mr. Draghi’s footsteps and speaks about the importance of NATO, clearly seeing his future in the establishment
Mr. Conte instead has struggled to signal to his unsatisfied supporters that he can deliver on their interests. But he speaks in legalistic terms, is often inconsistent and has the added headache of constantly trying to appease the party’s often inscrutable founder, the former comedian Beppe Grillo.
Mr. Conte has made a habit of issuing ultimatums to the government. Usually he falls in line. But this time, it is not clear he will.
“The scenario has changed, we need a different phase,” Mr. Conte told reporters after failing to reach a compromise during talks with Mr. Draghi on Wednesday. “We are ready to support the government but not to sign a blank bill. Whoever accuses us of irresponsibility needs to look in their own backyard.”
Among Mr. Conte’s objections to the spending priorities, he has argued that the government has not set aside enough funds for a cost of living package. Five Star, which is traditionally close to Russia and admiring of its president, Vladimir V. Putin, has also opposed sending significant military support to Ukraine in response to the Russian invasion, something Mr. Draghi strongly supports.
Mr. Conte, reflecting Five Star’s environmentalist roots, has also vehemently opposed using government money to build a garbage incinerator to alleviate Rome’s devastating trash problems.
If Mr. Conte set off the spark that brought the government down, even the parties that have been most solidly behind Mr. Draghi did not want to get caught in the conflagration.
Enrico Letta, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, which has drastically climbed in the polls as Five Star has plummeted, applied pressure on Five Star at a party meeting when he said he would be unwilling to form a new government without them. He added that early elections were preferable if the broad coalition fell apart.
Mr. Conte’s former ally, Matteo Salvini of the nationalist League party, said he, too, would pull his support from the coalition government and push for early elections if Five Star left.
“If a coalition party doesn’t back a government decree that’s it, enough is enough,” Mr. Salvini said on Italian television. “It seems clear that we should go to elections.”
Even so, his support has declined, while backing has increased for the hard-right Brothers of Italy party, led by Giorgia Meloni. Her party would be the greatest beneficiary of early elections, which she supports.
The earliest time for that election would be autumn, which would disturb the usual drafting of Italy’s budget and create the unlikely event of Italian politicians campaigning in the summer.