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Italy has found one person it can agree on — Mario Draghi. And that’s a problem.
The harmony around Draghi, Italy’s respected banker-turned emergency prime minister, was initially a salve for a pandemic-bruised country. Now, however, that same consensus is imperiling the country’s brief period of political stability.
Next month, Italy must choose a new president, a figure meant to represent national unity who officially appoints the prime minister. The odds-on favorite? Draghi.
But Draghi is still wanted as prime minister. Italy is at a critical moment: Billions in recovery funds are on their way, the pandemic is still circulating and major structural reforms are in the works, as well as planned reforms to EU debt rules in 2022.
That means a lot is hinging on the outcome, with no easy answer.
On the plus side, Draghi as president — in a seven-year term — could secure Italy’s long-term international credibility. But Draghi as prime minister may also deliver Italy from the pandemic and set it on a more equal economic footing.
Conversely, Draghi as president would create a power vacuum at a risky moment socially. But Draghi as prime minister may also wear out his welcome, as has happened to others before him.
“Italy’s problem is that it needs continuity, but there are two possible paths,” Stefano Ceccanti, a constitutional lawyer and lawmaker from the center-left Democratic Party,” told POLITICO.
“The risk is that if we enter a period of instability at this moment, the leading position in which we find ourselves in Europe is precarious,” he added, citing leadership turnover in Germany and the upcoming French election. “And if Draghi goes to the presidency and we go to elections, it could be cataclysmic, with unpredictable effects.”
A pandemic white knight
Draghi was pulled into politics earlier this year after Italy’s previous government collapsed in disunion over how to spend the €191.5 billion the country is set to receive under the EU’s pandemic recovery fund.
A former head of the European Central Bank credited with helping save the euro, Draghi was appointed to establish a unity government, cobbling together support from a broad spectrum of parties. That unity has mostly held in the 10 months since he assumed office. His approval ratings are also high, reaching 65 percent in recent surveys.
Inevitably, with Italian President Sergio Mattarella’s term ending in February, people started looking to Draghi. He’s both the public’s favorite — polling first at 28 percent in a recent survey from Dire-Tecne — and can command support from Italy’s disparate political forces.
Italy’s president is chosen by just over 1,000 parliamentarians and regional representatives, known as grand electors. The process in some ways resembles a papal conclave — it’s opaque, relies on a secret ballot and is surrounded by intrigue.
In recent history, Italian parties on the left have controlled the presidential selection. But this time, there is no faction on the left or the right that has the numbers to push through a candidate, meaning a cross-party consensus — and perhaps a figure like Draghi — will be needed.
Draghi has not confirmed he wants the role, refusing to answer questions on the topic, claiming it would be disrespectful to the incumbent. But his demureness has been interpreted by some as silent consent, especially as growing infighting among his coalition partners makes his role more strenuous.
Despite the squabbling, however, Italy’s prospects are looking up with Draghi at the helm.
Fitch Ratings recently upgraded the country’s fiscal outlook, predicting the economy will grow thanks to high vaccination rates and the incoming EU funds. Industrial production has also returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Still, Draghi certainly knows the advantage of moving on before his star wanes. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, another economist, Mario Monti, won swift popularity as a technocrat prime minister in a turbulent moment. But that popularity crashed at a similar point Draghi is at now.
Urging Draghi to stay
As the prospect of Draghi departing circulates, Italy’s political parties on the surface seem reluctant to reassume responsibility for running the country. Following the emergence of the Omicron coronavirus variant, numerous political leaders appealed to Draghi to stay on until the next general election in 2023.
Carlo Calenda, head of the progressive Azione party, told POLITICO Draghi should remain in his post ahead of a 2022 that promises to be an uphill struggle.
“Italy’s cases are now at 15,000 a day,” he said, noting a pandemic caseload not seen since the spring. “A new vaccination campaign is needed which will include children, which will be controversial.”
The risk of social unrest, he argued, is high.
Draghi’s departure would also remove him from the day-to-day administration of the €191.5 billion in recovery money. While many decisions have been made about how to spend the money, the actual execution will begin in earnest next year. The EU has similarly set out a timetable for structural reforms Italy must make to receive its full payout.
If Draghi became president, he could install a close collaborator like Economy Minister Daniele Franco as prime minister to help oversee the process. But without Draghi’s personal brand, keeping political parties in line and adhering to the EU’s timeline might be a struggle.
“I don’t see anyone else capable of keeping together such a heterogeneous majority,” Antonio Tajani, vice president of Forza Italia, the conservative party of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, said recently.
Tajani warned that a Draghi departure could also spark early elections. And the populist, far-right League party might quit the ruling coalition, seeing gains in becoming opposition bomb-throwers — this would force a government reshuffle. All of this is destablizing.
The next president
While Draghi can remain prime minister, Mattarella has a hard out in February when his term ends.
For political leaders like Enrico Letta, the former prime minister and Democratic Party head, the goal is to find a president with the same cross-cutting political support as Draghi — an attempt to preserve the government’s existing delicate coalition.
One low-risk solution would be to freeze the current state of affairs and convince Mattarella to stay for a second term like his predecessor, Giorgio Napolitano. But Mattarella has indicated he intends to leave office once his time is up.
It might not be his choice, said Francesco Clementi, a professor in the political science department at Perugia University.
“It is still difficult to say that Mattarella could not be compelled, in the national interest rather than out of choice, and faced with repeated unsuccessful voting rounds, to accept a second mandate,” he argued.
Absent Mattarella, former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato may win the backing of the current governing coalition, Clementi said. Others have suggested a centrist lawmaker like Pierferdinando Casini. And Calenda, the Azione party head, favors Justice Minister Marta Cartabia, who would be Italy’s first female president.
Then, as always, there’s Silvio Berlusconi.
The business impresario, politician and convicted tax cheat has long dreamed of the presidency. And he is waging an unofficial and unorthodox campaign for the job, flyering voters. Traditionally, Italian presidential candidates — like cardinals before a conclave — are expected to maintain a dignified humility.
Berlusconi does have some allies on the right, including Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni, who have said they will honor a deal to vote for him. Berlusconi could pick up votes from MPs who want to safeguard their seats amid fears a Draghi presidency could spark early elections. But by most estimates, Berlusconi is still well short of the necessary votes.
That brings things back to Draghi. Unless the prime minister rules himself out, his election to president remains plausible.
Yet as Romans are fond of saying, “He who goes into the conclave a pope, leaves a cardinal.”