Mario Draghi’s presidential candidate is bad for Italy and Europe
Seldom has an election for Italy’s presidency, a mostly ceremonial office, attracted as much interest as the one beginning January 24 in Rome. An electoral college of 1,009 parliamentarians and regional delegates is tasked with choosing the next head of state and holds daily elections until the job is done.
One reason for the interest is the always controversial Silvio Berlusconi. The former prime minister was among those most conspicuously interested in becoming president. But on January 22, he gave up his ambition. Close aides previously admitted that despite backing from right-wing parties, Mr Berlusconi was unable to rally the support he needed.
A second reason for interest is the possibility that the election will now fall to Mario Draghi, the current prime minister. Mr Draghi has enjoyed unusual calm and unity in Italian politics (his coalition government includes all but one of the main parties) for almost 12 months. And rarely have Italy’s companions EU Members needed his politicians to stay as united and calm as they are doing now. Italy is the biggest beneficiary of the EU‘s Pandemic Recovery Fund. More than €200 billion ($227 billion) of the €750 billion total is available and there is hope that it can be spent to boost Italy’s economic growth. For more than two decades, the country’s dismal development has acted as a brake on the economic growth of the entire country EU.
Mr Draghi’s government has made a good start in implementing the reforms and investments needed to productively absorb the money. But his thinly veiled desire to leave the Prime Minister’s residence, the Chigi Palace, for the more sumptuous Quirinale puts her in jeopardy. If he is elected, it will be difficult to find a successor who will hold the current, ideologically heterogeneous coalition together. If he doesn’t, his reputation will be diminished, so it can be almost as difficult for him to keep doing the same trick.
Fears have been expressed that Mr Draghi’s election could lead to early general elections. While not impossible, it looks unlikely. If the current parliament is dissolved before September 24, under the law passed in 2012, its members will lose their accumulated pension entitlements since it was convened in 2018 and will have to say goodbye to contributions of around 50,000 euros per person. So a more likely scenario is that a successor government is formed by Mr Draghi, which will try to beat the deadline before collapsing at some point, not too far before the natural end of the parliamentary term in March 2023.
The danger here is that a post-Draghi government would achieve little. Assuming a replacement can be found, he or she is unlikely to enjoy the support Mr Draghi currently enjoys, not least because the political parties currently backing him want to start positioning themselves for the next elections , and pull apart in their different directions. But the reform work has much more work to do, and if it falters, so can the flow of money from Brussels. The Covid recovery funds will be disbursed in tranches, with future tranches dependent on further implementation of the agreed programme.
Whether Mr Draghi actually becomes head of state in the meantime depends on several variables. Italian presidential elections are notoriously unpredictable — rich in stealthy deals and dizzying setbacks. Incumbent Sergio Mattarella was elected in 2015 with 665 votes in the fourth ballot after receiving just four votes in the previous one. And because voting is secret, party members often ignore directions from their leaders.
Covid-19 has created another layer of uncertainty. The rules require a two-thirds majority to win the first three rounds, and a simple majority thereafter. This is not calculated as a percentage of the votes cast, but as a percentage of the total number of voters. Any absence will therefore make it harder for everyone to win. More than 30 Electoral College members have tested positive for Covid in the past few days. On January 21, the government hastily enacted a measure that allowed them to come out of isolation to vote, likely at a specially set-up drive-thru polling station near Parliament.
The biggest obstacle for Mr Draghi is the legacy of Mr Berlusconi’s candidacy. Mr Berlusconi persuaded his allies Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini of the populist Northern League to publicly support him. In this way, Mr. Berlusconi became the paladin of the right – and thus automatically Mr. Draghi the paladin of the left. This makes it more difficult for Mr Berlusconi’s allies to turn their attention to the prime minister now. But neither the left nor the right have a clear majority in an electoral college teeming with independents. Roberto D’Alimonte, who teaches political science at Rome’s Luiss University, gives the left a tiny 463-452 lead, leaving 94 voters with no clear allegiance.
Lega votes are particularly important – all the more so as some in the centre-left Democratic Party and many in the largely progressive Five Star Movement have reservations about the Prime Minister’s presidency. But Mr Salvini, like Mr Berlusconi, has publicly argued that Mr Draghi should remain in government. To support his elevation to the presidency now requires: a and-turn the leader of the league can find difficult to justify. Unless incumbent Sergio Matterella would do something himself and-to turn back and agree to stay until the next election, it’s hard to imagine how this vote can end well for Italy.