‘Draghi walked into a trap’: leader’s ultimatum shatters Italy’s stability

Rightwing parties seek to take advantage of early elections after prime minister’s departure

After Italian prime minister Mario Draghi’s second and conclusive resignation this week, the conservative Il Tempo newspaper’s front page carried the headline: “Draghi’s suicide”. But rival title La Stampa depicted him as the victim of political murder, declaring his government had been “drowned”.

Just who is responsible for the fall of the highly respected former European Central Bank chief, feted for his role in saving the single currency in the euro zone crisis of 2012, is the subject of bitter debate among Italy’s politicians as they seek to deflect a wave of public anger over the collapse of the ruling coalition.

Opinion polls last week showed Italians overwhelmingly wanted Draghi to stay in office to steer Italy through its economic and geopolitical challenges rather than going to the polls early.

“The idea of government collapse was in the air, but the way it happened was quite surreal even by Italian standards,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, founder of YouTrend, a Turin-based political polling and analysis agency. “Nobody actually wants to take responsibility for this.”


But political analysts say a combination of miscalculation by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, the prime minister’s own rectitude and uncompromising nature, and realpolitik by Matteo Salvini’s hard-right League, proved fatal to Draghi’s national unity administration.

Draghi’s resignation on Thursday, and the dissolution of parliament, came after leading coalition partners Five Star, the League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia decided to boycott Wednesday’s confidence vote in his leadership. Draghi himself had called the vote after accusing them of trying to subvert the government’s policy agenda and demanding they recommit to his reform plans.

For his part, Salvini had watched as Giorgia Meloni’s far-right opposition Brothers of Italy eroded his party’s support since the League joined the government in early 2021. Following a day of high drama and rancorous debate on Wednesday, the League leader seized the chance to abandon a governing coalition in which he was increasingly uncomfortable and push for snap elections, which polls suggest rightwing parties would win.

Draghi “walked into a trap”, said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey in the UK. The League “didn’t trigger this – it’s all been served to them on a silver plate”.

Roberto D’Alimonte, a professor of political science at Rome’s Luiss university, said Italy’s rightwing bloc believes “they are going to win the next election ... they have been offered a golden opportunity”.

Draghi was asked in early 2021 to lead a national unity government and steer Italy through its Covid-19 crisis. Initially, his cross-party coalition steadied a faltering vaccination drive, supervised a robust economic rebound from 2020′s GDP contraction of 9 per cent, and won the EU’s approval for an economic reform agenda to unlock €200 billion in EU Covid recovery funds.

But analysts say he was frustrated by the difficulty of coalition negotiations over the reforms, which included updating property registers to improve tax collection, auctioning lucrative beach concessions and a new competition law. His tough stand against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine also unsettled parties, including Five Star and the League, which have historical ties to Moscow and to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Tension finally boiled over last week when Five Star boycotted a vote on a €26 billion aid package to shield Italians from inflation because of its opposition to the inclusion of a controversial waste incinerator for Rome, which faces a crisis over the disposal of rubbish.

Analysts say Five Star leader Giuseppe Conte was seething after a party split in June and was eager to be more assertive to shore up its collapsing base. “Five Star was fractured, divided and didn’t know where to go with a weak leader,” said YouTrend’s Pregliasco.

What Conte apparently had not expected was that Draghi would feel compelled to immediately offer his resignation even though the bill had passed with a comfortable majority despite Five Star’s boycott.

Draghi’s supporters said he had little choice after the move by such an important coalition partner. The prime minister was also angry that the League had supported a disruptive taxi drivers’ strike called in protest at the draft competition law. Passage of the measure is required under the terms of the EU Covid recovery fund.

However, D’Alimonte said Draghi’s first resignation offer had been a mistake and was not required by the constitution. “I understand the reason: he ... was tired of being pulled apart so he wanted to call the end of their game,” he said. “But if I was in his shoes, I would not have done it.”

Although President Sergio Mattarella rejected the prime minister’s resignation last week, his instruction to Draghi to return to parliament this week to assess his support set up the decisive round of the crisis.

In a speech to parliament on Wednesday, Draghi took a tough tone, criticising coalition members and saying he was willing to stay on only if they backed his reform agenda.

“He went to parliament without any negotiation with the main actors,” said Albertazzi. “What he has done is say to everyone that, ‘I’m not going to compromise, I’m not going to throw you a few bones. If you don’t like it, you can govern yourself.’”

For Italy’s rightwing parties, the lure of snap elections – and escaping the coalition with a plausible alternative scapegoat in Five Star – proved too attractive. “They took advantage of a crisis caused by Five Star to pull the plug,” said Pregliasco. “Salvini convinced Berlusconi that early elections would lead to a centre-right government.”

But analysts say the parties could yet pay a price for sinking one of the most popular and respected leaders in Italy’s postwar history. After all the drama, La Repubblica’s sombre front page headline on Thursday morning may have summed up the national mood: “Italy betrayed”. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022