Italy's former prime minister Matteo Renzi has yanked his small party out of government, stripping the ruling coalition of its parliamentary majority and triggering political chaos amid a resurgent COVID-19 epidemic.
Mr Renzi had been chafing for weeks at what he saw as Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's heavy hand in deciding how to spend billions of euros promised by the European Union to relaunch Italy's battered economy.
He criticized Conte's method of governing with emergency decrees and his habit of communicating via social media, and repeated demands that Italy's economic recovery plan make use of funds from the EU's European Stability Mechanism.
But critics accused him of simply seeking more power for his party, which is polling at just three per cent - and warned that now is not the time to quit the coalition.
"For sure, the country would definitely not understand a crisis. people are asking us to go on, in such a complex, hard situation", Mr Conte warned earlier.
"A (government) crisis wouldn't be understood by the country", Conte told reporters.
"It would really be an unforgivable mistake to get distracted or to slow down near the finish line".
During his 75-minute-long news conference, Renzi blasted what he described as a weak defense of democratic institutions by Conte when compared to the condemnations issued by the leaders of Germany, Britain and France after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6. But he said he would still support the government on help for businesses and measures to stem the spread of Covid-19.
"We won't allow anyone to have full powers".
The PM had earlier Wednesday visited President Sergio Mattarella, the ultimate arbiter of Italian political crises, to find a way through.
He insisted that it was "up to Conte" to resolve the crisis, but indicated that his party could work with the other coalition partners again if there was a stronger government program in place.
The two main coalition parties, the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), still support Mr Conte and condemned Mr Renzi's move.
Both they and Italia Viva have an incentive to avoid snap elections, with opinion polls pointing to defeat.
The opposition bloc, led by Matteo Salvini's far-right League, issued a statement calling for Conte to resign and saying the best way to guarantee stable government would be elections, some two years ahead of schedule.
Conte still enjoys a comfortable majority in the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Italy's parliament.
Alternatively, the premier could resign and seek a quick reappointment from Mr Mattarella at the head of a reshuffled cabinet that gives Mr Renzi bigger jobs - although this runs the risk of Mr Renzi trying to replace him.
"All options are open", said Lorenzo Castellani, a political expert at Rome's LUISS University, but he told AFP the same parties would likely stay in power.
Lorenzo Pregliasco from the University of Bologna added: "Renzi opened the crisis with the withdrawal of the government delegation, but left the door open".
"We can not rule out a stitch-up, however surreal it may be".