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Italy’s Super Mario falls on his sword

Italy’s unusually stable government under the experienced Mario Draghi is poised to collapse and take the country back to the days of ineffective alliances and controversial populists

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi takes a break during the debate following his communications to the Italian Senate (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

It always seemed too good to last. For 18 months, Italy had enjoyed the unusual distinction of having a sane, stable, grown-up government as all around it populist madness prevailed. Now it is collapsing after a week poised on a knife-edge.

Unable to force his argumentative right-wing coalition partners to support him in a risky confidence vote, the respected former European central Banker Mario Draghi has resigned – for a second time in days – and this time he has not let President Sergio Mattarella dissuade him.

Italy now looks set to face a fractious leadership election with a roll call of unsuitables vying bitterly for the premiership. Have they not understood that the United Kingdom, with its Brexity Conservative Party and the horrors of its current leadership contest, is a cautionary tale, not a role model?

Governments across Europe, who had been grateful and pleasantly surprised to have the steady-handed bureaucrat in charge of the large but often unstable European economic power, will be aghast at the demise of ‘Super Mario’, while Russia is bound to rejoice at the prospect of an unsettling election and a possible new government of (at least formerly) pro-Putin right-wingers. The Euro fell on the news. Still struggling with its economy and the repercussions of world events, this is the last thing Italy needs.

Draghi had made a big play of demanding loyalty from the Five Star Movement (M5S), who had refused to back him in an important vote last week on a fiscal package designed to address the cost of living crisis. This time it’s worse. His right-wing coalition partners, including firebrand Matteo Salvini’s Lega, or League, and former premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, also abstained in what was surely a deliberate move to humiliate Draghi – a humiliation abetted by his own stubbornness in trying to bring them all to heel even though he had already won the fiscal vote without M5S. He won Wednesday’s vote too, but lost his absolute majority due to the abstentions.

“From 172 yeses vs 39 nos to losing your majority in three days, all self inflicted. A hell of an achievement,” commented Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey.

Matteo Orfini, head of the Democratic Party, which as part of Draghi’s grand coalition had voted with him, called the abstentions “a choice that will make the country pay an enormous price”.

Draghi and other political figures had spent the day before the vote in a blizzard of meetings and manoeuvres designed either to save the government or replace it. Right-wing opposition leader Giorgia Meloni, who has been gleefully calling for immediate elections, said at the sidelines of an event that “history will proves us right” for refusing to participate in the three previous governments that all fell before their time. Some polls predict she will win at least enough votes to lead a right-wing alliance. “This [government’s] term is over,” she declaimed before the latest confidence vote. “We will fight to restore to the Italian people what all other democracies have: the freedom to choose who they want to represent them.” This a comment on the fact that Draghi had been appointed premier by Mattarella in February last year after elected politicians had failed.

Perhaps in part due to worries over having the inexperienced leader of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) – descended from a party founded by Mussolini’s fascist allies – at the heart of government, there has been uproar at all levels inside and outside the country at the latest events. Before the second vote several industry, farming and trade groups, together with top union leaders, had urged the government to continue, while more than 100 Italian mayors, including those from the top 10 metropolitan areas, wrote an open letter about their “incredulity and concern” and called for all sides to show “responsibility”.

The European Union executive was watching Italy “with worried astonishment”, according to former Italian premier and current EU economy commissioner Paolo Gentiloni. Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez had written an editorial in Politico underlining the vital role played by Italy and Draghi during the pandemic, war and financial crises currently hitting Europe: “Europe needs leaders like Mario.”

They’ll now have to look elsewhere. Draghi, a man known for calm, not impulsiveness, has blown it, which in itself shows just how much turmoil there was in his government. Draghi said the abstention of M5S destroyed the trust that made the coalition viable: “The national unity majority that supported this government since its creation no longer exists.”

Draghi had already declared that he would refuse to lead a government without support from the increasingly cantankerous M5S. That party had already split in June over an internal disagreement on sending extra weapons to Ukraine, with foreign minister Luigi di Maio forming a separate party within the government and pledging to support Draghi in defiance of the M5S leadership under former premier Giuseppe Conte. Di Maio declared the confidence vote “a black page for Italy. Politics has failed. The effect of this tragic choice will go down in history”.

It’s hard to see how the government can be salvaged now. Draghi won’t want to preside over a lame duck administration unable to make the reforms Italy needs. The alternative would be snap polls this autumn or a weak caretaker coalition until elections are due in 2023, neither good options for the country during a period of multiple world and national emergencies.

The crisis is hitting Italy’s fragile economy. The business group Confcommercio had already expressed alarm at the developments, with its research office highlighting a progressive reduction in GDP – an estimated decline of 0.6% in July over June’s figures – and zero growth annually. “The political crisis risks having a heavy impact on the economic one,” said Confcommercio president Carlo Sangalli. The numbers are now likely to deteriorate.

It’s becoming a tangled web. The Italian public did not want the uncertainty of an election – why would they? Even with the troubles experienced by Draghi and the sniping around the “undemocratic” nature of his position, this government has been a welcome change to the unstable, bonkers populist coalitions and suspect leaders of the past. A Euromedia poll, published by La Stampa, found that just 30.8% wanted to go to the ballot box. It’s no surprise that Meloni’s supporters were the keenest – with 65.5% of them wanting an election. It was more complicated for Salvini, who had been the supreme right-winger until Meloni came to steal his thunder, helped by his gaffes, missteps and the general degradation of being a junior coalition partner. Compared to Meloni, he is seen as a spent force, but he clearly believed he would come out well from this.

If Meloni were to win an election and head a coalition, this could be seismic for Italy. For a start, she would be Italy’s first woman prime minister, although not – as she says herself – a progressive, feminist one. It would also be notable for her party’s fascist past and its alarming contingent of “loonies and fruitcakes”. Fratelli members have been photographed honouring fascist leaders, while their local administrations have been involved in uncomfortable policies, such as making abortion more difficult.

Meloni has a Eurosceptic past, which led to the Financial Times worrying that she could pick destabilising fights with Brussels, although she has dampened down her views considerably. Italian analysts do not expect her government to go out on a limb on Europe if she comes to power, especially with the economy so dependent on EU funding. According to Luigi Scazzieri, senior fellow at the Centre for European Reform, “the risk of conflict between a right-wing coalition and the EU should not be overplayed. A right-wing government would not necessarily want to follow through with its more controversial promises, and it would be constrained by internal divisions”. Although never say never.

But – in one small consolation – he did say that, whatever happens, Draghi would leave Italy in a better place than he found it. Whatever the outcome, snap elections would put in doubt the next tranche of Italy’s funding from the EU’s NextGenerationEU pot for Covid recovery. It makes it difficult for Italy to meet the reform milestones required for the release of money in December, and the tight timing and uncertainty would make it harder for any incumbent government to properly deploy the money they already have.

Even if the new leader doesn’t turn out to be ultra-populist and damaging, the preference for most Italians would be the status quo – 52.9% would like to retain something closer to the current structure in these difficult times, when the effect of the war in Ukraine and this month’s heatwave and drought compound the already punishing effects of the pandemic. The coalition was always on borrowed time as a manufactured alliance that hadn’t faced the voters, but Draghi had strengthened his country economically and politically, and every month he stayed in power had been more month of reassuring calm.

Not any more. He gambled. He failed. Italy won’t thank him for it.

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