Mario Draghi may be bowing out of politics but Italy’s prime minister is casting a long shadow over September’s snap election which many voters see as an ill-timed mistake.
Gearing up for unusually short two-month election campaign, rival parties are sparring over who was responsible for the implosion of Draghi’s 18-month-old national unity government last month at a time of acute economic and geopolitical challenges.
Parties and prominent political personalities that supported Draghi and his EU-funded economic reform agenda are distancing themselves from those they blame for his demise. The drama has roiled Italy’s fragmented political landscape in which broad political alliances are critical in forging a governing majority.
“It’s a very clear dividing line between those who have kind of killed the king — and those who tried to save the king,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey.
Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank who was pulled out of retirement to become prime minister in February last year, won public approval as he sought to keep Italy’s post-Covid economic recovery on track, amid challenges stemming from Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Matteo Salvini’s rightwing League — all part of his erstwhile national unity government — boycotted a confidence vote on his leadership on July 20, triggering his resignation and the dissolution of parliament the next day.
The crisis had begun when Five Star, whose leader Giuseppe Conte was concerned over a split in his increasingly unpopular party, refused to participate in a July 14 vote on relief measures to Italians hit by rising inflation. Draghi said he would resign, but President Sergio Mattarella refused to accept his offer and told him to test his support in parliament.
In a stern speech to lawmakers, Draghi accused members of his coalition of trying to subvert agreed reforms, but said he was willing to stay on if political parties recommitted to the reform agenda. Instead, Five Star, Forza Italia and the League walked out, effectively ending Draghi’s government.
Analysts say their betrayal will have ramifications for the September 25 elections, influencing both voters and the political alliances that play a critical role in forming governments in Italy’s fragmented polity.
“The memory of how the Draghi government fell will be part of voters’ choices,” said Lorenzo Pregliasco, founder of YouTrend, a political polling firm. “The dynamics that led to his resignation are very much political and they can shape the election campaign in the coming weeks.”
Opinion polls point to a rightwing coalition with far-right Brothers of Italy, which was in opposition during Draghi’s tenure, Forza Italia, and the League on course for a decisive election victory.
But they also show popular support for the three parties that deserted Draghi — including both Forza Italia and the League — has eroded slightly since the government’s implosion.
“There is a good chunk of public opinion that thought the Draghi government was OK and don’t like what happened,” said Albertazzi. “The big question is, is this going to shift a lot of votes?”
Draghi’s unceremonious ousting has also shaken allegiances, altering the political landscape in a system that benefits parties that join with others rather than those that go it alone.
While two-thirds of parliamentary seats come from proportional representation, enabling small parties with a tiny national vote share to secure a token legislative presence, one-third of the seats are won in first-past-the-post races in constituencies across the country, which favour broad coalitions united behind a single candidate.
After the government’s collapse, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), which has been a staunch Draghi supporter, scrapped its alliance with Five Star, which was the largest party in the last parliament but is expected to see its numbers plunge. Instead, the PD, running just behind Brothers of Italy in popularity, is trying to forge alliances with smaller centrist parties to forge a winning coalition.
On the right, two heavyweight ministers from Forza Italia, Mara Carfagna and Mariastella Gelmini, have quit the party in disgust at Berlusconi’s role in torpedoing the Draghi government. The defectors have now joined Carlo Calenda’s centrist Azione party, which is seeking to woo moderate voters disillusioned with Forza Italia and wary of Brothers of Italy.
“The Five Star is already feeling the Draghi effect, but the Forza Italia will suffer the most from the decision to pull the plug,” said Pregliasco. “Over the last year, Forza Italia had tried to position itself as a reasonable voice on the centre-right, as a pro-European liberal. It is not easy for their voters to understand their U-turn.”
Even with the League and Forza Italia losing popularity, the centre-right block still looks certain to emerge as the largest force in parliament, led by surging support for Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. But the right’s path to power could yet be complicated, especially if disillusionment prompts many voters to stay home — as low turnout is seen as favouring the left.
“The majority of Italians still believe the snap elections are a mistake and a bad thing for Italy,” said Pregliasco.