Italy’s Mario Draghi fails in bid to save government as confidence vote falters


ROME — Italy’s government collapsed in resentment on Wednesday as the main parties abstained from a confidence vote and delivered a heavy blow to Prime Minister Mario Draghi, setting the stage for his almost certain resignation.

A day that started with Draghi pleading to stay ended with recriminations, deep divisions and the overwhelming probability elections in the fall which will favor a grouping of center-right and far-right parties.

The events abruptly end a period of relative political unity in Rome and destabilize the European Union’s third-largest economy, in which Draghi was widely seen as a guarantor. For a year and a half, the centrist Draghi led a broad left-right government, and he had leveraged his reputation – built as Europe’s former biggest central banker – to increase Italy’s influence in Brussels and strongly vouch for a tough European line against Russia in its war in Ukraine.

But the leaders of several coalition parties signaled on Wednesday that they preferred something else.

“It’s over,” Draghi ally Matteo Renzi told the Senate as three senior coalition members, irritated by a grueling day of negotiations, announced they would not take part in the vote of confidence.

Italy in crisis as president rejects PM Draghi’s resignation offer

Based on pure numbers, Draghi prevailed in the vote. But since the Five Star Movement, the League and Forward Italy decided not to participate, they effectively torpedoed the unity government.

Draghi, surprised, chose not to hand in his resignation in the process – a decision that would have required a visit to the presidential palace. He will instead appear before the lower house on Thursday morning. Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome, said Draghi’s resignation nevertheless seemed inevitable.

“I don’t see any political possibility to rebuild the situation,” Orsina said.

What comes next for Italy, whenever elections are held, could be very different. The next government will likely bring together a group of nationalist and centre-right parties, some of which hold Eurosceptic and pro-Russian views. In recent days, some politicians loyal to Draghi had warned that the Italian crisis was playing into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hands. But it’s unclear what sort of approach these parties would take once in power. Giorgia Meloni, whose Nationalist Brotherhood of Italy is the most popular party in the country and the only opposition group, supported Ukraine against Russia.

“We have to consider this [Draghi’s departure] would mean for resistance to Putin,” Enrico Letta, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, said in a phone interview. “Draghi was and is a reference for all European leaders.”

Many political pundits expected Draghi – on a decisive day – to be able to persuade the parties to recommit to the coalition. When he tried to resign last week, in response to a revolt against a Five Star Movement bill, he was rebuffed by President Sergio Mattarella, who urged him to return to parliament and test his coalition one more time.

But by mid-afternoon Wednesday, fractures were evident everywhere: between Draghi and the right, between the right and the amorphous Five Star Movement, parties blaming each other for the collapse. The parties, in recent months, were increasingly at odds. Italy, under any circumstances, is bound to hold a nationwide vote early next year, prompting parties to differentiate themselves in perspective.

“The desire to move forward together has gradually faded,” Draghi said in a morning address to the Senate.

In the address, raising his voice at times, Draghi celebrated the government’s work in helping Italy through the worst of the pandemic emergency and, more recently, scrambling for alternative energy sources amid the war in Ukraine. But he also issued a stern message, asking coalition parties to re-engage and end any attempt to subvert the government’s agenda. It was his effort to make sure that if he led his coalition to the finish line, it wouldn’t be complicated.

“We need a new pact of trust – sincere and concrete,” Draghi said. “Are you ready to rebuild this pact?

But he didn’t go out of his way to appeal to the populist Five Star movement by mentioning his pet projects. And he took a veiled dig at the Nationalist League, whose leader Matteo Salvini has voiced support for striking taxi drivers, whose protests Draghi called “violent” and “unauthorized”.

It soon became apparent that the chances of a deal were collapsing.

Ahead of the confidence vote, the far-right and center-right parties had said in a joint memo that they were fine with Draghi as leader – as long as the Five Star Movement was not in government. But Draghi had said he only wanted to chair the broadest possible coalition, including the Five Star Movement. Because he was unelected – handpicked by Mattarella to lead a unity government during a time of government crisis in 2021 – he said he needed the widest possible support to continue.

In times of crisis, the Italian president plays a disproportionate role. After previous government collapses, Mattarella helped the country form new coalitions and avoid snap elections.

If and when Draghi steps down, Mattarella could in theory try again, find a figure who could win a majority and lead Italy to the end of its legislative session. But given the acrimony — and the right’s push to vote early — the chances of such a solution are miniscule. Even if he steps down, Draghi may have the option of staying on as a replacement ahead of a vote, which is expected to be held in late September or October.

Before the confidence vote, Draghi had received many pleas to stay a little longer, including from more than 2,000 mayors in a petition. Polls have shown that two-thirds of Italians want Draghi to stay. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote an op-ed in Politico saying, “Europe needs leaders like Mario.”

“A dark moment for Italy,” wrote Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, on Twitter. “The effects of this tragic choice will linger in history.”

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