Only one political figure will benefit from chaos in Italy. He is in Moscow, not Rome.
On July 14th, Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, tendered his resignation after the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) abstained in the Senate in a vote of confidence on a decree containing, among other things, a regulation on the construction of a much-debated waste-to-energy plant in Rome. According to Draghi, an executive such as that in place since February 2021, if no longer supported by a broad coalition of parties—as things stand, all except the far-right Fratelli d’Italia—would make little sense and lose its animating spirit.
The decree, ostensibly the bone of contention, was passed, even with the abstention of the movement founded by the comic Beppe Grillo, currently led by the former prime minister, Giuseppe Conte. During this administration other parties, such as the far-right Lega or centrist Italia Viva, have also denied the government confidence on other dossiers.
The former president of the European Central Bank nevertheless offered his resignation to the president, Sergio Mattarella. Mattarella however rejected Draghi’s bid as a desperate attempt to exit the crisis when the Italian parliament convenes tomorrow.
Draghi and Conte have been on a collision course for months. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Conte has often voiced his displeasure, including over the level of military expenditure by Italy in the midst of a socio-economic crisis exacerbated by the pandemic. There was also talk of pressure by Draghi on Grillo to sideline Conte.
On June 21st, M5S lost one of its heavyweights, Luigi Di Maio, the minister of foreign affairs—and with him an important number of parliamentarians. With a sideswipe at Conte, Di Maio said: ‘We cannot afford any more ambiguity. We necessarily had to choose sides on the story, with Ukraine the aggressor or Russia the aggressor. The positions of some M5S leaders risked weakening our country. To think of tearing the stability of the government apart only for reasons related to the crisis of consensus is irresponsible.’
As the political scientist Piero Ignazi pointed out, Draghi’s approach to governing should be understood in contrast to ordinary politics, based on party claims, pressures and calculations. On the contrary, Draghi felt burdened with the task of taking Italy through the critical moment of the pandemic, including the organisation of vaccination and the management of the Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza, Italy’s €222 billion plan to avail itself of the European Union Recovery and Resilience Facility.
Italian politics remains highly unpredictable and—with the current coalition organised around the centre-left Democratic Party and M5S put at risk by relations between Draghi and Conte—Italians could be called to the ballot-box before spring 2023. From such an election it is very likely a right-wing coalition led by Giorgia Meloni of the Fratelli could emerge, although a Meloni-led executive would not be entirely welcomed by old allies Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, still cautious about pulling the plug on Draghi’s administration. Meloni as prime minister would not make the mistake of openly antagonising the European Union institutions or the financial markets but rather would try to reassure them, while pursuing a gradual ‘mainstreaming’ of far-right concepts and ideology.
Early elections, perhaps in the autumn, would be the worst scenario. Amid war in Europe and soaring inflation, with the economic outlook gradually deteriorating after a fragile post-pandemic recovery and all the uncertainty still related to the virus, such a political shock could quickly throw Italy into chaos. If many had expected more from the ‘whatever it takes’ man, with Draghi Italy has kept its stance on the current international arena very clear—essentially strong support for a shared EU approach and NATO line.
It is impossible to say whether this week the crisis can be restabilised—whether there will be a new executive for a few months, led again by Draghi or some other prominent figure, or whether there will be early elections. Nor is it possible to affirm now any Russian influence on what is happening, as we can do retrospectively vis-à-vis the election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 or the ‘Brexit’ decision in the United Kingdom that year.
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What though is certain is that Moscow is already rejoicing at the picture of an Italy once more facing into the abyss.