Italy heads to the polls

In case you missed the news, Italy is headed to an early election this year, with the resignation yesterday of prime minister Mario Draghi after failing to win the support he wanted from party leaders.

An early election in Italy is no great novelty; its governments have been notoriously unstable throughout the democratic era. The last parliament, however, elected in 2013, surprised many observers by lasting for a full term, and until recently the current one, with Draghi in office, looked to have a fair chance of doing the same.

Draghi, a politically centrist technocrat who was appointed in February last year, set off the current crisis last week following the decision by the Five-Star Movement, initially the largest single component of his coalition, to abstain on a vote of confidence. That of itself didn’t imperil the government’s majority, but it was enough to induce Draghi to submit his resignation.

President Sergio Mattarella and other political leaders urged him to reconsider, and it was no surprise when Draghi said on Wednesday that he was willing to stay on – provided the parties agreed to support him. But the right decided that the temptation of an early election was too great, and deliberately set terms that they knew Draghi could not meet.

When it was formed, Draghi’s government rested on four pillars: the 5-Stars, the centre-left Democratic Party, the centre-right Forza Italia and the far-right League. The latter two had run together at the election, in alliance with the post-Fascist Brothers of Italy, but while they agreed to join Draghi, Brothers of Italy stayed out – calculating (correctly, it seems) that being the only major opposition party would boost its status.

Since then, both the centre-left and the 5-Stars have split, with the more centrist element in each leaving and forming new parties (Italia Viva and Together for the Future, respectively). With a collection of other small non-aligned groups, Draghi now has more of a centrist power base than he started out with, but he still depended overwhelmingly on the four biggest parties, of which only the centre-left stood by him.

The remnant 5-Stars disagree with Draghi’s pro-Ukraine policies, but Draghi wanted to keep them within the tent for fear that the government would otherwise lean too much to the right. The League and Forza Italia wanted to exclude them for the same reason. But they also had no real interest in having Draghi succeed, as long as they could avoid carrying all the blame for an early election.

So on Wednesday Draghi faced a confidence vote in the Senate, which he won, but in a fashion that made it impossible to carry on. Only 95 of the 321 senators backed him, with 38 against (mostly Brothers of Italy) and 188 not voting, including all of the 5-Stars, the League and the centre-right. Draghi resigned the next morning, although he will remain in a caretaker capacity.

The three right-of-centre parties – two within the government and one outside it – have maintained their alliance, and polls have consistently put them collectively in the mid to high 40s, enough for a parliamentary majority. Within that alliance, however, Brothers of Italy is now clearly the dominant force, with roughly as much support as the other two combined. There is also dissent within Forza Italia over its role in bringing down Draghi, suggesting another potential split.

So with an election now set for 25 September, the question is whether the centre and centre-left will be able to leverage popular support for Draghi into enough votes to deny the right a majority. If not, it seems that 79 years after the fall of Mussolini, his party (or at least its lineal descendant) will finally return to power.

It’s not at all clear what a government headed by Giorgia Meloni, Brothers of Italy’s leader, would be like. She has been a good deal more pro-Ukraine than League leader Matteo Salvini, and otherwise has tried to cast herself as a mainstream democratic leader – prior to the formation of the Draghi government, it was the League that was generally seen to be positioned further to the right.

The project of taming Salvini, if that was Draghi’s intention, has not been a complete success. Add in the wild card of Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi, who at age 85 and suffering from long-Covid is probably facing his last election, and its clear that even a solid majority for the alliance will not guarantee stability.

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