Conte gathered his cabinet on Tuesday morning to announce he would be handing his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella, after a political crisis left his coalition government severely weakened.
Conte will reportedly visit Mattarella at noon, and is expected to seek a mandate to form a new government.
If successful, this would be Conte’s third administration since 2018. However, he may not have the political support needed, and the outcome of the political crisis as yet remains uncertain.
Mattarella will then open discussions with party leaders on a way forward over the coming days – leaving a vacuum at the top of government during the coronavirus pandemic and economic crisis.
The ruling coalition has been struggling since former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his small Italia Viva party on January 13th.
Conte survived a parliamentary vote of confidence last week but failed to secure a majority in the Senate, the upper house, leaving his government severely weakened.
His resignation comes ahead of a key vote on judicial reforms later this week, which commentators suggest the government was on course to lose.
“Conte’s calculation is that by moving early, and thereby avoiding a humiliating defeat in the Senate later this week, he would increase his chances of securing a mandate from Mattarella to form a new government,” noted Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy.
He will likely then seek to widen support beyond his coalition, currently comprising mainly of the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).
“However, it is currently unclear whether Conte can succeed in such an effort,” Piccoli said.
He added that if he fails, the M5S and PD could “ditch Conte and look for another candidate” to head a new coalition government.
The ruling parties are keen to avoid snap elections, which opinion polls suggest would lead to victory for the centre-right coalition comprising Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s far-right League party.
Shortly before the resignation announcement, key figures in both M5S and the PD offered their support to a new Conte government.
“We remain at Conte’s side,” said a statement from M5S’s leaders in both parliamentary houses, Davide Crippa and Ettore Licheri.
“The transition to the so-called Conte ter (three) is now inevitable and is the only way out of this wicked crisis.”
“The country is going through one of its worst ever periods due to the pandemic,” said foreign minister Luigi Di Maio on Twitter.
“We all have to gather around Giuseppe Conte.”