Technocracy vs politics in Italy

Last month, when we looked at Italy, prime minister Giuseppe Conte – an independent who is broadly aligned with the populist 5-Star Movement – had just weathered votes of confidence in both houses of parliament, prompted by a dispute with Matteo Renzi, leader of the small centrist party Italia Viva.

But Conte needed Renzi back within the tent to be able to carry on for the longer term. The following week, after negotiations to that effect had gone nowhere, he resigned, apparently hoping to be commissioned to form a new government.

President Sergio Mattarella conducted a round of talks with all the players before deciding that this was not a viable option. Instead, last week he asked Mario Draghi, former head of the European Central Bank, to form a technocratic government. Renzi and Conte have both promised to support him; the 5-Stars, while originally hostile, may also come around.

There’s no doubt that Draghi has the qualifications for the job. In his role at the ECB he was popularly credited with saving the euro after the global financial crisis. Politically he is non-aligned, although he has usually been thought of as leaning slightly towards the centre-left. Certainly the financial markets liked the idea, with Milan’s stock market up sharply in the following few days.

But I’m not convinced that this is the right way to go. Italy’s fundamental problems are political, not technical, and taking leadership away from the politicians sends the wrong message about what needs to be addressed.

The time, if any, for a government of national unity was a year ago, when Covid-19 was just starting to have its deadly effect on the country. It remains a major threat, but the idea that in response it’s only now become necessary to give up on politics as usual lacks credibility. Ditto for the idea that technocratic management will settle disputes on how to spend Italy’s bonanza in pandemic relief funds from the European Union.

In reality, if Draghi succeeds in forming a government it will not be by bringing everyone together in one big happy family, but by relying (as the participants have basically conceded) on much the same combination of parliamentary forces that supported Conte: the populists, the centre-left, the left, and assorted centrists like Renzi.

Italy’s big problem is that it lacks a substantial, pro-democratic force on the centre-right. Instead, some 40% of the electorate supports one of the two far-right or post-Fascist parties, the League and Brothers of Italy. They have held out the possibility of co-operating with Draghi, but it would be at best a short-term expedient: their aim is to force an early election, in which they hope to win a majority.

Sitting in between the old governing coalition and the far right is, yes, the old stager Silvio Berlusconi, now 84 but still leading Forza Italia, the remnant of the Italian centre-right. Perhaps Draghi harbors the hope that he could be the one to detach Berlusconi from his far-right allies and build some sort of respectable centre force. It’s not impossible, but most of those who relied on Berlusconi in the past have been disappointed.

The problem with the resort to technocracy is that it obscures the fact that there are political choices to be make and political battles to be fought. League leader Matteo Salvini is not in opposition because he has a different view about how to distribute relief funds but because he has a fundamentally different vision about what sort of country Italy should be. This is an ideological conflict, not a technical one.

It’s less than a century since Italian democracy meekly surrendered to Fascism, because its establishment politicians failed to recognise the seriousness of the threat and unite against it. But they had excuses: the threat on the other side from the far left was very real, and Mussolini claimed that he would govern like an ordinary democratic politician (and for a short time mostly did so).

Their modern counterparts, however, should know what they are up against. If they fail, it will be entirely their fault.

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