The “key man risk” is becoming familiar to Italian observers. Since Mario Draghi became Prime Minister in February, Italy has experienced a period of political stability that it has rarely seen since the collapse of the Democrazia Cristiana monolith. [Christian Democrats] in 1992.
The question of his succession after the next elections in 2023 is worrying.
With the support of most political parties, Draghi has crafted an ambitious reform agenda that will pass with little opposition. This month, his cabinet passed a law requiring all employees to show proof of vaccination in order to enter the workplace. Over the next few months, Draghi will cut through the thicket of Italy’s tax system, streamline its bloated court system, and reform its heavy-handed competition law.
For a normal Italian government, any of these efforts would likely be fatal. For Draghi, they are sine qua non.
Brussels is also feeling the Draghi effect. After the German elections, the former President of the European Central Bank will become the most institutionally experienced member of the European Council.
When the Fit for 55 climate package or the Stability and Growth Pact is debated next year, expect Italy to play a leading role in the negotiations.
It will seem odd to the outside world, but the fact that the upcoming administrative elections barely grab the headlines shows Draghi’s strength.
Italian local elections have sometimes had explosive consequences; in 2000, they even overthrew the government of Massimo d’Alema. This time, nothing will happen. Not just because the results will make little sense for a government backed by parties of all stripes. But also because no one could take Draghi’s place.
None of the Italian parties are on the verge of inheriting Draghi’s catch-all appeal. The Five Star Movement (M5S) and the League (Lega), the two populist movements that captured the public’s imagination in 2018, are both torn between the moderate wing and the radical wing.
Giorgia Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia) have been touted as the ‘party to watch’ – but as a stranger to Draghi’s popular government, his potential support probably has an upper limit of. ‘about 25%. In recent weeks, it has stabilized in the polls.
But even the centrists falter.
The new leader of the center-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD), Enrico Letta, was somewhat disappointing. Instead of a rapprochement with his longtime rival Matteo Renzi of centrist Italy Alive (Italia Viva), he kept the party close to the M5S – an outdated and ungrateful alliance.
Road to power?
Draghi is unlikely to run as a candidate in 2023. Such a move will force him into the arena; for the moment, staying above the political fray allows it to manage the frequent ruptures of its patchwork coalition.
But also, the former central banker is used to calibrated and sparse communication; the country path, with all its boosterism and radical declarations, is not its natural habitat.
Still, Draghi could lead Italy beyond 2023 in other ways. He is expected to succeed Sergio Mattarella as President of the Republic. But if that role carries a lot of ceremonial weight and some real power, it would also remove Draghi from day-to-day policymaking – and from Brussels.
Instead, whichever coalition wins the next election, it will have to nominate Draghi as prime minister for a second term. This may sound fancy, but for two reasons. First, there are many historical precedents for an unelected prime minister: since Mario Monti took the top post in 2011, none of the prime ministers of Italy have been chosen directly by voters.
Second, none of the Italian party leaders have strong leadership credentials.
On the right, Meloni’s long-standing Euroscepticism makes it impossible to swallow for pro-EU Italy (Forza Italia, FI), whose support will be essential for a right-wing coalition to take off. League leader Matteo Salvini is an exhausted force.
FI does not have an obvious candidate for the field; its founder, Silvio Berlusconi, is 84 years old and in poor health.
On the left, Giuseppe Conte loses control of the M5S just a few weeks after becoming its new leader. PD’s Letta will highlight her unconditional support for Draghi as proof of PD’s commitment to reform. What better way to do this than to put the man himself in charge?
If the suggestion that Draghi could become the next prime minister regardless of who wins the election sounds ludicrous, consider two facts.
First, eight months after taking office, Draghi’s personal political leanings remain a mystery. His impartiality will allow him to fit well into any centrist political framework. The right wing could point the finger at its record of privatizations in the 1990s; the left could stress its support for low income benefits.
Second, Draghi’s personal popularity far exceeds that of any Italian politician. It is easier to sell to the electorate than any of its potential rivals.
A second term Draghi is Italy’s best hope for carrying out the structural reforms it needs to redress its economic and social situation. Another important process of renewal – that of its political class – must wait.