ROME (AP) — Italian Premier Mario Draghi’s decision to resign Thursday, barely 12 hours after his “unity” coalition broke apart dramatically in Parliament, was the latest step in a political limbo that will likely last for months before a new government is solidly in place to lead the European Union’s third-largest economy.
By Thursday afternoon, about the only certainty was Italians are going to the ballot box on Sept. 25, some six months early.
Even before the date was set, Italy’s perennially bickering parties were already off and running, some of them losing longtime stalwarts in their leadership over the decision by three key coalition partners — populist, right-wing and conservative — to desert Draghi. In 17 months at the helm of government, Draghi was viewed as a pillar of stability on a continent wracked by high inflation and fearful of energy shortages as the war in Ukraine drags on.
Rallies, petitions and pleas by citizens, mayors and lobbyists to save his imperiled government ultimately went unheeded. Political partisan priorities triumphed over solidarity in a nation that, like most of Europe, faces an approaching cold winter as it deals with the consequences of its dependency on gas from Russia.
How the failure to heed citizens' pleas might shape voters' decisions won't be known until the votes are counted and parties in backroom talks forge a new government.
IF DRAGHI HAD SO MANY FANS, WHAT WENT WRONG?
Much finger-pointing was aimed at the 5-Star Movement, which became Parliament's largest political force in the 2018 election. Its leader, Giuseppe Conte, drafted by the 5-Stars to be premier in back-to-back governments, had joined his successor's “national unity coalition." But he always seemed to be chafing at losing his post to Draghi, who was tapped by President Sergio Mattarella to guide Italy's economic revival in the pandemic. Last week, 5-Star senators boycotted a confidence vote on an energy costs relief bill.
But Draghi suffered no shortages of run-ins with other coalition partners. To cite only one: right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini railed against a government decree requiring vaccination against COVID-19, a negative test or recent recovery from infection to access venues including restaurants, gyms and workplaces.
Both Conte and Salvini, known for pro-Russia stances, eventually reluctantly approved Italy's shipments of arms to Ukraine. Former premier Silvio Berlusconi, whose conservative Forza Italia party also deserted the coalition, lavished attention on Russian leader Vladimir Putin, treating him like a close friend at his Sardinian seaside villa.
A small, centrist party leader, Carlo Calenda tweeted with irony: “It will be a coincidence, but the most serious and pro-Atlantic government of recent history gets sent packing by those who have supported pro-Putin positions.”
WHAT COMES NEXT?
Mattarella, the Italian president, told the nation Thursday evening that while early elections are always a “last choice,” he saw no chance for a fourth government in the five-year term of Parliament. So he signed a decree dissolving Parliament.
The fatal blow for Draghi's government struck when senators from Conte's, Salvini's and Berlusconi's parties refused to renew their backing for Draghi in a confidence vote the premier sought in a 11th-hour bid to revive his coalition.
Italy's constitution mandates that elections must be held within 70 days of the decree ending Parliament, whose five-year term would have expired in March 2023.
Opinion polls in last months indicated that the far-right Brothers of Italy party, the only sizeable force in Parliament to refuse to join Draghi's coalition could garner just over 20% if an election. That's roughly the same percentage the polls give the center-left Democratic Party. But former Premier Enrico Letta, whose Democratic Party gave Draghi its confidence votes, had been banking on an eventual electoral alliance with the 5-Star Movement — a prospect decidedly dicey after the populists deserted Draghi. Giorgia Meloni, the Brothers of Italy leader, has been allied for years with Salvini's and Berlusconi's parties, but while her popularity rose, their parties have seen slumping fortunes in local elections. But with Salvini itching for years to become premier, Meloni might face a Salvini-Berlusconi deal to make the League leader the next premier.
The dramatic and rapid unraveling of Draghi's ‘’unity" coalition is likely to leave its mark on Italy's political landscape. As former Premier Matteo Renzi, a master of political maneuvering, who helped bring down Conte's second premiership, put it even before the votes were counted Wednesday night: “Nothing will be the same as political parties go.”
By Thursday evening, two prominent stalwarts n Berlusconi's Forza Italia who are ministers in Draghi's Cabinet announced they were leaving the party. They accused the media mogul of betraying the party's staunch pro-Europe, pro-NATO leanings by siding with Euro-skeptic Salvini and abandoning Draghi. As for the populists, the 5-Star Movement has been bleeding lawmakers for months. The most prominent to defect is Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, who recently formed a pro-NATO party.
HOW LONG WILL DRAGHI STAY IN OFFICE
Draghi stays until a new government is formed and sworn in. After the 2018 elections, which saw the 5-Stars confound pundits and opinion polls with a stunningly big win, it took 90 days to get a new government in place, anchored by Conte's and Salvini's forces. So conceivably, Draghi in his caretaker role, might occupy the premier's office through most of this year.
The caretaker designation will make it impossible for the lame-duck government to take on new initiatives. But Draghi, in thanking his Cabinet Thursday evening, made clear he intended to still be useful.
“Italy has everything (needed) to be strong, authoritative, credible,'' in the world. Draghi said. He reminded his ministers that the government must still grapple with the pandemic, the war in Ukraine, inflation and energy costs as well as economic reforms.
So for now, "let's get back to work,'' he said.