Italy loses Draghi as leader – for now

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The fall of the Italian government led by Mario Draghi on July 20 shocked the country for three main reasons. The first is that Draghi, who was President of the European Central Bank between 2011 and 2018, enjoys an unrivaled reputation in Italy as a competent and authoritative civil servant, and Italian public opinion gives him great higher score than any of the party leaders currently running for office. The second is that Draghi’s firm Euro-Atlantic leadership made Italy a relevant player in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. The third reason is that it is precisely this combination of Euro-Atlantic reliability and personal authority that has made Draghi the guarantor of the many benefits Italy derives from its Cooperation with the European Union. The program of the Draghi government coincided with the reforms of the National Recovery and Resilience Planallowing Italy to receive a total of approximately 200 billion euros (11% of its GDP) from the European Union by 2026. Thanks to these enormous resources, the country has a chance to overcome the 30 years stagnation in its economy, the consequences of the 2020 health crisis, and the geopolitical and economic trauma produced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

For all these reasons, there was a reaction of bewilderment and even outrage in the country when political party tricks brought down Draghi’s broad unity government after 17 months. The political consequences are difficult to understand. Prior to Draghi’s resignation, polls have shown that an early vote would favor the only opposition party, Brothers of Italy, a rising political formation on the far right of the parliamentary spectrum led by Giorgia Meloni. It is a party that is often identified with “post-fascist” nostalgiacombining evocative nationalist sentiments with a yearning for social life and ethnic uniformity, and which has strong affinities with the authoritarian model represented today in Europe by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Credited in the polls with the potential vote of almost one in four Italians, the Brothers of Italy could lead a right-wing coalition to win a majority of seats in the Italian parliament.

Draghi’s downfall may seem strange to foreign observers. But escalating political unrest was inevitable as the end of the legislature approached. The 2018 elections produced a populist legislature with the majority of seats going to two parties that shared similar demagogic rhetoric and ended up governing together for about a year: the Five Star Movement, traditionally placed on the left of the chessboard politics, and the League on the right. After two governments led by Giuseppe Conte and characterized by an unusual level of incompetence, Mario Draghi received in February 2021 the mandate of lead a government of national unity. The only political formation that did not participate in the Draghi government was Meloni’s far-right Italy Brothers.

In July 2022, the upcoming end of the legislature in the spring of 2023 woke up the instincts of all Italian parties. Since the never-resolved crisis of political credibility that erupted with the corruption scandals of the early 1990s, no government majority in Italy has ever been reconfirmed in the next election. Thus, it has always been convenient for all political parties to present themselves to voters from the opposition benches. During the last months of this legislature, the most populist government parties rushed to the door.

The first movement, the last serious mistake in an endless chain, was made by the leader of the five-star movement, Conte prior announcement his exit from the government coalition. Right-wing parties immediately understood that Conte had broken the alliance with the other major left-wing party, the Democratic Party, a staunch supporter of Draghi. In the event of an election, the left camp would therefore not have been able to form a coalition. Immediately, the right-wing parties participating in the government – Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s League – brought about the fall of the government and – together with the Brothers of Italy – called for new elections. Draghi couldn’t resist climbing the Quirinal hill and tendering his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella.

The fortuitous action of Conte, Salvini and Berlusconi raised suspicion that Draghi’s downfall was the work of the influence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who saw Draghi as the leader of the major European Union countries most strongly opposed to the Russian military and diplomatic strategies. There is plenty of evidence of Putin’s interest in Italy’s political development, but no evidence yet of Moscow’s direct influence over the three leaders who conspired against Draghi. However, Berlusconi and Salvini risk being blackmailed by Putin, having cultivated business relations with Moscow, either personally or through members of their parties.

In this situation, President Mattarella’s reaction was perhaps the decisive factor in the whole story. Instead of carrying out laborious consultations to save the legislature, the President of the Republic called new elections as soon as possible, on September 25. Thus, Mattarella has only given the parties one month to present their lists of candidates by August 21. This is an extremely short period to reduce the conflicts and infighting that characterize potential right- and left-wing coalitions.

The calendar is even busier considering that the elections will take place under a new electoral law. This new law reduces the number of seats in the Chamber of Deputies from 630 to 400 and reduces the Senate from 315 to 200 seats. In addition, the new provisions make it more difficult to form tactical coalitions as in the past, built more to steal the votes of opponents than to assert unified programs and a single coalition leader.

Unity is problematic on the left. After the split of the Five Star Movement with the Democratic Party, the latter must seek new alliances in the center rather than on the left. Much of the Democratic Party’s hopes rest on future cooperation with Carlo Calenda’s Azione, a new centrist political formation that has seen a rise in power and is draining support from Berlusconi’s party.

However, the lacerations are perhaps just as deep on the right, where Meloni claims the right to be or choose the leader of a new government under a previous agreement with Forza Italia and the League which awarded the leadership. of a right-wing coalition to the party with the most votes. Berlusconi is by no means of the same opinion and it is not excluded that he and Salvini combine to have another Prime Minister. The brothers in Italy, at this time, could stand alone at the polls rather than running with the others in a coalition. To avoid this possibility, a preliminary examination OK between Meloni, Berlusconi and Salvini was concluded on July 27. But the agreement does not seem watertight: the current advantage of the Brothers of Italy is given by its role as the only opposition party for the duration of the past legislature. This advantage is unlikely to last once Meloni becomes head of government, and in a few months Berlusconi and Salvini would be tempted to challenge Meloni.

Mattarella’s choice to call the election has now forced the parties to expose their weaknesses in public. Under the new electoral law, just over a third of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are elected by first-past-the-post rather than proportional representation. Depending on who wins around 30 more seats, one coalition or the other should win an absolute majority. Confidential polls in mid-July gave an 80% probability of a victory for the right-wing coalition. Meloni, Salvini and Berlusconi are still the favorites, but today the vote looks more uncertain than it seemed then.

And now for the dream. If no absolute majority emerged from the vote, the parties would be unable to form their preferred ruling coalitions in a fragmented parliament. In this case, Mattarella should look for another great go (impartial) to form a cross-party coalition or a technical government, a tradition rooted in Italian politics since the country’s unification in 1861. Many Italians hope that next October Italian party leaders will be forced to knocking on the door of the protected house of Mario Draghi in Umbria, resurrecting after 2,500 years the legend of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Roman consul who, in an emergency, was asked to leave his retirement in the countryside and resume the power.

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