Draghi’s undesirable exit reflects time-honoured tradition in Italian politics

As it became clear this week that Mario Draghi would resign as Italian prime minister, the hashtag #poveraItalia — poor Italy — trended on social media. Why, anguished Italians were asking, are we discarding a statesman of rare quality when our often misgoverned country is most in need of wise, efficient and principled leadership? Why do we harm ourselves so needlessly?

“We played with the future of Italians,” lamented foreign minister Luigi Di Maio. “The effects of this tragic choice will remain in history.”

It was not the people but the professional politicians of three parties — the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement, and the rightwing League and Forza Italia — whose intrigues hastened Draghi’s exit. Critics of the 74-year-old former European Central Bank president say that, to some degree, he contributed to his downfall by ruling out the wheeling and dealing that is the hallmark of Italian politics — indeed, of politics in most democracies.

A less high-minded approach might have prolonged his premiership, at least for a few more months. But Draghi took the view that to reorganise his government would have broken the bond of trust, resting on a broad cross-party consensus, that was the essential condition of his premiership.

Unquestionably, it is a bad time for him to go. For those who regard Russia’s attack on Ukraine as an existential test of the resolve of western democracies, Draghi has provided indispensable leadership in a country where pacifism and pro-Russian sympathies colour the outlook of some political parties, business circles and indeed citizens. He was among the first EU leaders to advocate that Ukraine should be granted candidate membership status. He set out proposals for the 27-nation bloc to overcome the energy emergency arising from its reliance on Russian gas and oil.

Since his appointment in February 2021, Draghi has also guided Italy through the pandemic, which struck his country with particular ferocity. He devised and began to implement an economic and administrative reform programme that is the key to unlocking some €200bn for Italy from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery fund. More significantly, he grasped the nettle of reform in a manner that eluded his feckless, scheming predecessors — some of whom, such as former premiers Silvio Berlusconi and Giuseppe Conte, were among those who brought him down.

Draghi’s experience as a former Italian central bank chief and ECB president appeared of the utmost importance at a time of intensifying market pressure on Italian sovereign bonds. Recently widening yield spreads between German and Italian debt tell a familiar story about the lack of market faith in the Italian political classes. It is not so much that Italy’s public debt of about 150 per cent of gross domestic product is unmanageable as that financial markets and its eurozone partners want to see a disciplined hand on the economic tiller.

It is far from certain that the snap elections called for September 25 will produce a government capable of such discipline. The rightwing parties that are in pole position to win will have an incentive to continue Draghi’s reforms in order to ensure the flow of EU largesse. Yet neither the League nor Forza Italia nor the Brothers of Italy — the party with post-fascist roots that leads in opinion polls — has an impressive record on reform. EU leaders still shudder when they recall how Berlusconi’s incompetence dragged Italy to the precipice in the eurozone crisis of 2011.

If Draghi’s resignation was abrupt and undesirable, it was nonetheless entirely consistent with political practice in Italy’s post-1945 democratic era. His national unity administration lasted 17 months, slightly longer than the average term for the 69 governments since the second world war.

Prime ministers fall like ninepins because of rebellions, desertions and tactical manoeuvres among the coalitions that provide their legislative majority. Draghi was particularly vulnerable partly because he was a non-party technocrat with no natural base, and partly because the politicians who supported him in 2021 are rivals who disagree on most things except the need to keep an eye on the next elections.

He stood out because unlike most Italian prime ministers — honourable exceptions include fellow technocrats Carlo Azeglio Ciampi and Mario Monti — he was not beholden to the opaque networks of influence that pervade the political system and public administration. These are reinforced by an electoral system that allows party leaderships to control who stands for parliament. Many political careers depend less on winning voters’ trust than on displaying loyalty to party bosses.

There is, however, an element of anarchy in the system. In every legislature some parliamentarians betray their leaders and switch camps — or create a faction of their own. These deeply ingrained habits were coming to the fore the closer Italy came to the next election, making Draghi’s grasp on power looser by the month.

Denis Mack Smith, a distinguished British historian of Italy, once observed that it was unclear if “a career in politics will ever attract enough of Italy’s most responsible and intelligent citizens”. If he were alive today, he might think the events of this week more than vindicated his judgment.