Much of the response to Mario Draghi’s appointment as Italian prime minister has focused on the technocratic nature of his government. Martin J. Bull argues that while Draghi may be a technocrat, his agenda is already generating a significant realignment in Italian politics.
Italy’s new government, led by Mario Draghi, former President of the European Central Bank and Governor of the Bank of Italy, received resounding votes of confidence in the Chamber of Deputies and Senate on February 17-18. This technocrat with no parliamentary experience set up a government made up of eight technical ministers and supported by all political parties except one, the far-right âBrothers of Italyâ, who chose to remain in the opposition.
Draghi the technocrat
Much is made of the technocratic character of this government of ânational unityâ whose origins can be found in the collapse, in January, of the second government of Giuseppe Conte and the subsequent failure of the parties to form an alternative. Given the urgent challenges Italy faces on various fronts, Italian President Sergio Mattarella, rather than dissolving parliament and calling elections, opted for a Draghi solution to allow Italy to surrender to the next elections scheduled for March 2023.
Draghi presented the Senate with a comprehensive set of goals related to managing the pandemic, expanding the rollout of the immunization program, and finalizing the use of the huge (EU-funded) stimulus fund ), in addition to fiscal, environmental and legal measures. reforms, alongside other measures to protect employment. The scale of this reform program (which Draghi nicknamed âNew Reconstructionâ, echoing the first post-war governments) and its timetable make this technocratic government stand out from its predecessors (Ciampi, Dini, Monti), which have tended to be more narrowly reform specific and time bound. Moreover, in stark contrast to the last technocratic government (by Mario Monti, 2011-13) where the main task in the aftermath of the Great Recession was to administer severe spending cuts, Draghi’s main objective was is to find the best way to spend Italy’s budget. part of the EU stimulus fund, the staggering sum of 203 billion euros.
The politics behind Draghi
All of this changes somewhat the apparent technical nature of this government. Draghi himself refuses to be labeled and says he is simply “the government of the country”, rejecting the idea that he is there because of “the failure of politics”, and insisting that ‘neither party should compromise on their identity. Yet the very appointment of Draghi already appears to be having a big impact on parties, and we could, in the coming period, see a realignment of Italian political competition, a trend that has already started with the onset of the pandemic of Covid-19.
Before the pandemic, this competition had been dominated by growing anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti-migrant populism, in the form of both the Five Star Movement and Matteo Salvini’s League, with both sides appearing to be reaping the benefits. of a rebellion against a decade of austerity imposed by the EU and the major parties.
The climax of Italian populism came with the 2018 national elections and the coming to power of a Five Star / League coalition led by Giuseppe Conte. As the popularity of the Five Star Movement waned during his tenure, League support took off and he left government in September 2019 in the hope of forcing an election and reaping the rewards. To avoid this result, Conte replaced the League with the Democratic Party to form his second government. The League took a tough opposition stance, and from there the specter of Italy’s biggest party in the polls (with the League getting ten percentage points higher than either of the two governing parties) hovered. on Conte’s fragile coalition.
Figure 1: Support for the main Italian parties (2019-21)
To note: The graph illustrates the evolution of support for the main Italian parties from the start of the second government led by Giuseppe Conte (September 2019) through the Covid-19 pandemic (January 2020) until today (February 2021) . Source: Developed from ‘You Trend’ data.
The impact of the pandemic
Yet that all changed with the pandemic. Although the government faced rather poorly (at first) Italy’s biggest peacetime public health crisis, the public rallied around Conte (the ‘people’s advocate’), his Personal ratings skyrocketed and support for ruling parties stabilized. The League, for its part, has seen a steady decline in its support. Its anti-migration stance became redundant almost overnight as the flow of refugees came to a halt with the pandemic, and its anti-EU stance seemed out of place once the EU forged a stimulus fund from which the Italy would proportionally be the largest beneficiary of the 27 nations.
Today the League joins, with its former ally (the Five Star Movement), a government led by the former head of the European Central Bank, and we hear another tune. Salvini maintains that it was not the League that changed his ideas, but Europe (in the sense of abandoning austerity and financing a real recovery program). In fact, he wants to be around the table to influence decisions on how and when the funding should be spent. Still, he may have trouble having his cake and eating it. When asked if he now accepts the euro as inevitable, he replied that the only inevitable thing in life is death. Draghi, in his speech to the Senate, made it clear that for anyone who supported his government, the euro was an “irreversible choice”.
End of a Eurosceptic era?
While almost all parties side with a European banker, what about the famous anti-establishment and anti-EU populism in Italy? Opposition to Draghi now belongs to the right-wing Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni. Yet his opposition appears to be more principled, based on a rejection of technocrats to solve Italy’s problems. She obviously hopes that if things turn out badly for Draghi, the Brothers of Italy will reap the dividends and strengthen their support, which has increased during the pandemic.
Draghi, then, may be a technocrat who has to design a reform program that sits above the parties. But his very appointment and his program are already causing a major realignment of the political forces behind him, ending Italy’s flirtation with “Italexit“, and laying the groundwork for the country to return to its former position of being. one of the most Europhile of all nations.
Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Presidenza della Repubblica (public domain)