- PM Conte faces do-or-die confidence vote.
- Several unaligned senators signal they will not sink govt.
- Crisis triggered when party of ex-PM Renzi quit coalition.
ROME: The government of Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte looked on course to survive an upper house confidence vote on Tuesday as unaligned senators responded to his call not to sink it in the midst of the COVID crisis.
But it is likely to be abstentions rather than an absolute majority of votes in favour that will keep the administration afloat, meaning it would in essence continue to function as a minority government.
That would make lawmaking difficult and leave Conte vulnerable to future parliamentary ambushes, at a time when the country is battling to contain one of the world's worst coronavirus epidemics.
Former premier Matteo Renzi triggered the political crisis when he pulled his centrist Italia Viva party from Conte's coalition last week over the prime minister's handling of the pandemic and ensuing recession.
Italia Viva's former agriculture minister, Teresa Bellanova, said its senators' "unanimous feeling" was that they should abstain.
Earlier, several waverers rallied to Conte's call for stability, including former prime minister Mario Monti and 90-year-old Liliana Segre, a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, both unelected and unaffiliated life senators.
The result of the vote is expected after 7:00 pm (1800 GMT).
A defeat would force the prime minister to resign, ending a 17-month government led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
"It now looks very unlikely that Conte will lose," said Lorenzo Pregliasco, head of polling and political analysis firm YouTrend. "The most likely scenario is that the government will win but fall short of an outright majority."
Citi analysts said in a note that a win by Conte would narrow the yield gap between Italian and German government bonds, while a surprise defeat would see a "knee-jerk widening."
The most optimistic recent tally by analysts has put Conte on 157 votes, four short of an absolute majority in the 321-seat Senate.
Looking to entice centrist and liberal lawmakers, he has promised to revamp his policy agenda and shake up his cabinet, saying he wanted to modernise Italy and speed up implementation of an economic recovery plan.
Government strategists are betting that even if he misses an absolute majority on Tuesday, more centrist parliamentarians will drift into his camp over time and bolster his position.
Maurizio Gasparri, a veteran senator from Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, forecast Conte would win with 154-155 votes, but that a third of Renzi's 18 Italia Viva senators would then join the government's ranks in coming days.