ROME — Italy hit a period of dizzying political turbulence Thursday, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi saying he would resign and make way for a new government, only for the country’s president to reject Draghi’s resignation and ask him to reassess whether he can hold a majority together.
Draghi for 17 months has been a rare unifying force in Italian politics, commanding a wide left-to-right backing. But that unity has faltered as pandemic concerns have been replaced by inflation, record drought and war in Europe — and as some political parties perceive they might fare better in early elections.
It remains far from certain whether Draghi will hang on as prime minister, or whether Italy will slide into new elections that heavily favor groups from the center-right and far right. But the chaos was a reminder of how quickly political fortunes can rise and fall in Italy, and how much the country might change if Draghi — a pro-Europe leader who has advocated a firm response toward Russia — exits the scene.
Even if Italy pieces together a solution, it’s for the short term. Draghi was always a placeholder leader, though one with significant clout, and Italy has to hold general elections by the early months of next year. The early-stage electioneering has already widened the wedges between the parties in Draghi’s coalition, and the tensions broke out into the open Thursday.
Italy was pushed to the brink not by a global or national crisis but by a debate over a proposed trash incinerator in Rome.
“Absurd,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at Luiss Guido Carli University.
Senators from one of the biggest parties in Draghi’s coalition — the Five Star Movement — boycotted a confidence motion ostensibly because it was linked to a bill that contained a provision for the incinerator, a project the party opposes on environmental grounds. Other politicians have called it a solution to an urgent — and putrid — problem in a city that has become synonymous with haphazard trash collection, overflowing dumpsters and seagulls that swoop in to feast on the rubbish.
Draghi had made clear he would interpret a walkout as a vote against the unity government he leads. The Five Stars — a onetime populist party that has hemorrhaged most of its support — went ahead, anyway. And so Draghi offered his resignation, saying that the trust underpinning the government had come “undone” and that the conditions for a functional government “no longer exist.”
Draghi, if he can be persuaded to stay on, could patch things back together with yet another confidence vote — one tied solely to the existence of the government, unrelated to any bill. Mattarella, a revered former constitutional court judge, has proved adept over the years at appealing to a sense of national responsibility, and there are clear reasons Italy would benefit from keeping its government intact for a while longer. In the autumn, it has a budget to pass. And it must carry out reforms to receive its windfall from the European pandemic recovery fund.
Draghi, in theory, could also carry on as prime minister in a new government without the Five Stars, in what would be a narrower majority. But Draghi, who in February 2021 was handpicked by Mattarella to lead a unity coalition, has indicated that he wants no part in such a scenario.
“There is no government without the Five Stars,” Draghi said this week, adding that he wouldn’t lead a coalition with an alternate makeup.
D’Alimonte said Mattarella wants to keep Draghi as prime minister and avoid early elections. But those, too, remain a possibility.
Many analysts say such a move would be bruising for Italy, given the emergencies confronting Europe. Among investors, Draghi is seen as a guarantor of stability in one of the world’s most heavily indebted economies. And in Brussels, where he is widely respected for his past eurozone-saving work as Europe’s top central banker, Draghi has given Italy a level of political influence it rarely enjoys. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has backed sanctions against Russia and helped Italy scramble to find alternative energy sources. (Before Draghi addresses Parliament in the middle of next week, he has a trip planned to Algeria.)
But some of the same Italian parties that have been supporting Draghi now have reasons to prefer elections, if given the choice. Parties on the center right and far right are convinced they could win any vote held in the coming months. The Five Stars’ move gives them such a chance without looking as if they initiated the government’s breakup.
“The situation such as it is cannot go on,” Lorenzo Fontana, a deputy leader of the nationalist League, had said earlier in the day. “Clearly, for us, there is no fear of leaving the final word to Italians.”
Italy is notorious for its topsy-turvy politics, but the latest disruption caught the country off-guard, coming just before the political class decamps for its summer holidays. The source of the tumult, the Five Star Movement, is fighting for its political future and struggling to figure out how to do it.
The Five Star Movement only a few years ago was Italy’s most popular party — an anti-establishment band of populists, comprising ideas from the left and the right, that promised a radical form of democracy, including internet votes among party supporters. But the movement has proved more effective at agitating from the outside than governing.
As part of various Italian coalitions over the past four years, it has zigzagged on issues including immigration and the European Union. The party recently splintered when Minister of Foreign Affairs Luigi Di Maio picked off about a third of the Five Stars’ parliamentarians, who were divided on weapons shipments to Ukraine. The remaining Five Star members are led by Giuseppe Conte, a former prime minister and law professor, who earlier this month had handed Draghi a nine-point list of the party’s proposals.
“A government won’t be able to work under an ultimatum,” Draghi said in response.
There is a history between Draghi and Conte, who had been Italy’s leader during the onset of the pandemic, and who made the difficult — but ultimately lifesaving — decision to call for a nationwide lockdown at a time when such moves were unprecedented in a modern democracy. But in early 2021, Conte was pushed out as part of a fight within his own coalition just as Italy was trying to ramp up its coronavirus vaccination campaign. Mattarella, at the time, said it was time for a government that could tackle “the great emergencies.”