Press play to listen to this article
ROME — Italy’s political dream team is staying put, but the supporting cast is threatening to shatter the fantasy.
On Thursday, Italian President Sergio Mattarella was sworn in for a second term after being reelected over the weekend — despite his protests. The pitch that won him over: Italy can’t afford to fracture now.
Keeping Mattarella in his post, the argument went, would allow Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a leading candidate for president, to also stay in his job. That meant Draghi could hold together his governing coalition, avoid destabilizing early elections and guide Italy through a pandemic recovery.
Mattarella relented. European leaders breathed a sigh of relief. Financial markets did the same. Crisis averted.
Within days, it became apparent that the political scuffles that broke out during the presidential election had exposed deep divisions within Draghi’s governing coalition — and left wounds that will not quickly heal.
Now, Italy’s right-wing unity is collapsing, with leaders threatening to form new parties and cement fresh alliances. And a leadership battle has erupted within the powerful 5Star Movement, which has more parliament seats than any other party.
The right-wing alliance is “in pieces,” proclaimed Giorgia Meloni, leader of the extreme-right Brothers of Italy party. It “no longer exists. It will have to be rebuilt from scratch.”
The tensions will strain Draghi’s governing coalition, potentially reducing the government’s effectiveness at a time when billions of euros in EU funding are on the line. The outcome will determine whether Italy can take full advantage of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to kickstart its sluggish economy and make long-term structural reforms ahead of elections that must take place by June 2023.
“Until summer, [Draghi] is in a position of strength,” said Giovanni Orsina, a professor of political history at Luiss University in Rome. “Stability is confirmed for the next six months or so and during this time Draghi can impose his reforms. Then from September, the parties will start campaigning.”
Italy’s president is elected through an obscure series of votes and backroom deals between political leaders and just over 1,000 lawmakers from across the country. The position, while often ceremonial, is vital in a political crisis, empowered to appoint prime ministers. That’s exactly how Draghi came to power, tapped by Mattarella to guide Italy through the pandemic.
The recent presidential election played out over nearly a week of infighting and plotting. As lawmakers approached the end of Mattarella’s term on February 3, the process remained at an impasse, obstructed by a mesh of vetoes, and with neither the left nor the right able to coalesce around one candidate.
As the days progressed, backbench lawmakers, flouting orders from their bosses, voted in ever greater numbers for Mattarella, signaling a way to break the gridlock.
Once Mattarella broke through, most parties claimed the outcome as a victory. But the bare-knuckle combat and mutual recriminations of the past few days have left potentially irreparable damage on Italy’s landscape.
The first victim appears to be Italy’s right-wing coalition.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing League, was initially in a potential kingmaking position. But a series of tactical errors left his coalition sniping at him.
First, Salvini couldn’t get the coalition behind his preferred candidate. Then, the right-wing bloc broke into factions, disagreeing over yet another candidate, then over whether to back Mattarella.
Salvini’s approach was “crazy,” Meloni said.
Fine, Salvini countered, launching a bid to form a new party with conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, the ex-prime minister thrice over who had openly canvassed for the presidency.
The nascent center-left alliance fared only slightly better.
After Mattarella’s election, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio — a former 5Stars leader — attacked his successor, Giuseppe Conte.
“Some leaders failed,” he said. “In 5Stars, too, we need to reflect internally.”
Conte shot right back. Di Maio, he said, “has to account for his actions, some of which are very serious.”
Di Maio is now expected to mount a leadership challenge to Conte, or perhaps break from the movement altogether.
Remarkably, Draghi has emerged relatively unscathed from the ruins.
The prime minister has been anxious to present Mattarella’s election as a win and demonstrate no bitterness over the fact that he personally had to ask Mattarella to stay on. Draghi said he was “delighted” by the decision.
According to Stefano Ceccanti, a lawmaker from the center-left Democratic Party, Mattarella’s election keeps Draghi in a relatively strong position.
“Yes, he wanted to be president, but Mattarella is second best,” Ceccanti said. “This government was created by Mattarella, so the election of any other president would have weakened it.”
Yet it is notable that three of the parties within Draghi’s own government thwarted his chance at becoming president, said Orsina, the political history professor.
“Technically, he is in a weaker position because the election did not go how he wanted,” he said.
On the plus side, Orsina added, Draghi may now have more power over his unruly coalition.
“They effectively begged Draghi and Mattarella to stay on, so now if he tells them to do something they have to do it,” he said.
While some party leaders have asked Draghi to clarify his priorities and even raised the prospect of a Cabinet reshuffle, Draghi seems keen to get on with the job.
On Monday, Draghi ordered his ministers to provide a progress report within 48 hours on their various pandemic recovery projects. A call with Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated that the prime minister was back at work.
The stumbling blocks
Yet tensions remain.
The upcoming program of reforms — pensions, taxes — will inevitably highlight the ideological differences within the grand coalition.
Salvini, the League leader, is already agitating against Italy’s next controversial reform, a change to the country’s property mapping database, which he sees as a precursor to increasing taxes. And on Wednesday, League ministers refused to vote for new COVID measures for schools on the grounds that the rules discriminated between vaccinated and unvaccinated. The parties are also already arguing over proposed changes to the electoral system that could shift how parliament seats are divvied up.
If the League, under pressure from their right-wing rival Brothers of Italy, pulls out of Draghi’s government, it would be destabilizing for the coalition. Ceccanti argued such a move is unlikely for the moment.
“There will be turbulence but whoever bet on this government will not leave now, once you make a bet you stick to it,” Ceccanti said.
Observers like Orsina said Draghi can likely keep his reforms on track for several months, after which the parties will move into campaign mode, emphasizing their ideological differences ahead of the expected 2023 election.
One surprise winner is the Brothers of Italy, who voted against Mattarella and gained two points in a poll for Euromedia, rising to 21 percent. That put the party five points ahead of their rival, the League.
Lorenzo Pregliasco, a pollster for YouTrend, said he expected the Brothers of Italy to continue increasing its lead over the League, partly because the party benefits from being the only one in opposition.
“The result was not great for them, but Salvini was ineffective, weak and unreliable — all traits which will end up strengthening Brothers of Italy,” Pregliasco said.