ROME – Italy has seen dozens of governments since the end of World War II, so it's very accustomed to political crises. But the tumult now roiling its political parties is playing out differently as Premier Mario Draghi's future as the nation's leader hangs in the balance.
Draghi's offered to resign last week after a coalition partner, the populist 5-Star Movement, boycotted an important Senate vote. But Italy's president declined to accept the resignation — for now, at least. Draghi is not a politician, and in his 17 months in office at the helm of an unusual “national unity” government, he has gained statesman status in Western Europe for his staunch support of aid for Ukraine and for his shepherding efforts to enact economic reforms.
The outcome of debate in the legislature on Wednesday will help determine if Draghi will stay in office. In marked contrast to many previous political crises in Italy, which citizens have shrugged off, this time many Italians are pleading with Draghi to stay. If Draghi can't — or won't — revive his coalition, early elections could be the result.
WHAT'S DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS GOVERNMENT:
President Sergio Mattarella tapped Draghi, the former chief of the European Central Bank, to form a “national unity” government in February 2021 to help revive Italy's pandemic-battered economy. Draghi took the helm of the premiership from Giuseppe Conte, the 5-Star leader who chafed at losing his post as he struggled to get Italy's COVID-19 vaccination program running smoothly.
Draghi leads an unusual coalition, of often-squabbling rivals, including parties on the right, center and left, as well as the 5-Stars, who dealt him the stinging betrayal on July 14.
This crisis comes at a particularly crucial time — for Italy and Europe. High inflation and skyrocketing energy costs are punishing consumers and industry. And Draghi has positioned himself as one of the staunchest backers of military and other aid from Europe for Ukraine, as that country defends itself from the war launched by Russia. With political setbacks for British leader Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, and the absence of longtime German leader Angela Merkel still very much felt on the continent, Draghi has established himself as a reliable, authoritative voice of Europe. The premier has also stayed the course in delivering reforms demanded by the European Union as conditions for 200 billion euros in pandemic recovery aid.
Wednesday is a crucial day. Mattarella has invited Draghi to go before Parliament to explain why he wants to resign. Lawmakers then publicly stake their positions in debate. While the other coalition parties are expected to press Draghi to stay, the 5-Stars, weakened by defections from their ranks, have been squabbling over what to do. Draghi has said he won't govern without the populists in his coalition.
A MATTER OF CONFIDENCE:
Draghi's government hasn't sought a make-or-break confidence vote. But lawmakers from parties in his coalition could propose motions and tie them to an open-roll-call vote, in a bid to ensure party discipline. Should those eventual motions fail, Draghi's departure would be virtually inevitable.
ROOTING FOR “REMAIN”:
An online petition called “Draghi, stay” launched by former Premier Matteo Renzi had snagged more than 100,000 signatures by late Monday. Hundreds of rank-and-file citizens and political leaders turned out Monday for pro-Draghi rallies in piazzas in Rome, Milan and other cities. Some 1,000 mayors from rival political stripes signed an open letter to Draghi exhorting him to remain. Various lobbies, including a doctors' group worried about any government leadership void amid surging coronavirus infections, also pitched “please stay” pleas.
Even without the 5-Stars, Draghi could still muster a comfortable majority in the legislature. But Draghi, whose "whatever it takes" strategy saved the euro currency from demise a decade ago when he led the European Central Bank, could decide that while he technically still has the numbers on his side, he might have run out of patience with his not infrequently bickering coalition partners.
IF DRAGHI EXITS:
Should Draghi make his resignation bid irrevocable, the next move is up to Mattarella. He could ask someone else to try to form a government, but Draghi’s is already the third government since the election of Parliament, in 2018. More likely is that the president will dissolve Parliament, triggering early elections as soon as late September. The legislature's five-year term expires in March, so elections wouldn't be far off in any case.
Such a move would likely be in the interests of the far-right, EU-skeptic Brothers of Italy, which opinion polls indicate could be the top vote-getter, propelling its leader Giorgia Meloni into the premier’s office.