- The speaker of the lower house of parliament suspended Thursday's proceedings and said he would call a meeting of all party chiefs.
ROME: Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte was battling Thursday to keep his government afloat after a key coalition partner withdrew, sparking a political crisis in the middle of a raging pandemic.
Lawmakers on all sides demanded he set out what will happen next following the dramatic exit of former premier Matteo Renzi's Italia Viva party on Wednesday evening.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, Roberto Fico, suspended Thursday's proceedings and said he would call a meeting of all party chiefs.
"I will contact Conte for the request to come to the chamber," he said, adding: "This House is not and cannot be indifferent to what is happening."
Renzi's two cabinet ministers and a junior minister quit the government Wednesday, breaking up the ruling centre-left coalition that has been in office in September 2019.
With him went Italia Viva's 18 senators, leaving Conte without a majority in the Senate -- although he still has one in the lower Chamber of Deputies.
Renzi had for weeks been complaining about Conte's leadership, notably his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which has plunged Italy into deep recession and claimed more than 80,000 lives.
The trigger was the cabinet's approval this week of spending plans for a 220 billion euro ($264 billion) European Union recovery fund, which Renzi warned was too focused on vote-winning handouts rather than on structural reforms.
But there was widespread anger within Italy at Renzi's decision, which risks leaving the eurozone's third biggest economy rudderless at a critical time.
Conte could submit his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella and seek immediate reappointment at the helm of a reshuffled cabinet.
Alternatively, he could seek a vote of confidence in parliament, which would require him to find new supporters in the Senate.
Several newspapers reported that he would try to delay taking action for a few days, while pushing through new aid for businesses hit by coronavirus shutdowns.
Renzi has already said he would back the package, which was due to be approved in a cabinet meeting later Thursday before being sent to parliament.
Many analysts believe the coalition will survive in some form, not least because all of its members face defeat if the crisis forces snap elections.
This includes Renzi's Italia Viva, which is polling at just three percent support.
The main ruling parties, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), both responded with fury to Renzi's move.
Nicola Zingaretti, head of the PD, said it was a "mistake that hurts Italy".
"We need investments, jobs, healthcare to fight the pandemic. Not a government crisis."
Alessandro Di Battista, a leading figure of the M5S, said his party was done with Renzi, saying "he'll never be let in again".
A survey published in Wednesday's Corriere della Sera newspaper suggests there is also little public support for Renzi, once a rising star who served as premier from 2014 to 2016.
Some 73 percent of those polled said Renzi was acting out of self-interest, rather than that of the country, and asked to take sides, 55 percent preferred Conte -- with just 10 percent backing Renzi.
The prime minister, who was an obscure law professor before being appointed a technocratic head of the government in 2018, has already proved his political skills.
His first coalition comprised the M5S and the far-right League, but after the latter withdrew in August 2019, he created a new government with the M5S and PD.