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23rd Oct 2021

Opinion

Why Draghi could be a two-term prime-minister

  • There is plenty of historical precedent for a non-elected prime ministers: since Mario Monti took the top job in 2011, none of Italy's prime ministers were chosen directly by voters (Photo: Pixabay)
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"Key man risk" is becoming familiar to Italy-watchers. Since Mario Draghi became prime minister in February, Italy has been under a spell of political stability it has rarely known since the collapse of the monolith Democrazia Cristiana [Christian Democrats] in 1992.

The question of his succession after the next elections in 2023 is worrisome.

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With the backing of most political parties, Draghi has devised an ambitious reform agenda that will pass with little opposition. This month, his cabinet passed a law requiring all employees to present proof of vaccination in order to enter the workplace. In the next months, Draghi will cut through thicket of Italy's tax system, streamline its bloated justice system, and reform its stodgy competition law.

For a normal Italian government, any one of these efforts would likely be fatal. For Draghi, they are sine qua non.

Brussels is feeling the Draghi effect, too. After the German elections, the former president of the European Central Bank will become the European Council's most institutionally-experienced member.

When the Fit for 55 climate package or the Stability and Growth Pact come up for debate next year, expect Italy to play a leading role in negotiations.

It will seem outlandish to the outside eye, but the fact that upcoming administrative elections are barely making headlines signals Draghi's strength.

Italian local elections have sometimes had explosive consequences; in 2000, they even brought down Massimo d'Alema's government. This time, nothing will happen. Not just because results will have little read-across to a government that is supported by parties of all stripes. But also because no one could take Draghi's place.

None of Italy's parties are remotely close to inheriting Draghi's catch-all appeal. The Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the League (Lega), the two populist movements that captured the public imagination in 2018, are both torn between moderate and radical wings.

Giorgia Meloni's far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia) has been touted as the 'party to watch' – but as an outsider to Draghi's popular government, its potential support probably has an upper limit of about 25 percent. In recent weeks, it has levelled off in the polls.

But even the centrists are faltering.

The centre-left Democratic Party's (Partito Democratico,PD) new leader, Enrico Letta, has been somewhat disappointing. Instead of a rapprochement with his long-time rival, Matteo Renzi of centrist Italy Alive (Italia Viva), he has kept the party close to M5S – a stale and unrewarding alliance.

Route to power?

Draghi is unlikely to stand as a candidate in 2023. Such a move will force him to enter the arena; right now, remaining above the political fray allows him to manage his patchwork coalition's frequent bust-ups.

But also, the ex-central banker is used to calibrated and sparse communication; the campaign trail, with all its boosterism and sweeping statements, is not his natural habitat.

Still, there are other ways in which Draghi could lead Italy beyond 2023. He is tipped to succeed Sergio Mattarella as president of the Republic. But while this role carries much ceremonial weight, and some real power, it would also remove Draghi from day-to-day policymaking – and from Brussels.

Instead, whatever coalition will win the next elections should nominate Draghi as prime minister for a second term. This might seem fanciful, but for two reasons. First, there is plenty of historical precedent for a non-elected prime ministers: since Mario Monti took the top job in 2011, none of Italy's prime ministers were chosen directly by voters.

Second, none of Italy's party leaders have strong leadership credentials.

On the right, Meloni's long-held euroscepticism makes her impossible to swallow for pro-EU Forward Italy (Forza Italia, FI), whose support will be essential for a right-wing coalition to take off. League leader Matteo Salvini is a spent force.

FI has no obvious candidate to field; its founder, Silvio Berlusconi, is 84 and in poor health.

On the left, Giuseppe Conte is losing control of M5S only weeks after becoming its new leader. PD's Letta will emphasise his unconditional support of Draghi as evidence of PD's commitment to reform. What better way to do this than to put the man himself back in charge?

If the suggestion that Draghi could become the next prime minister regardless of who wins the election seems farcical, 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 to his track-record of privatisations in the 1990s; the left-wing could point to his support for low-income benefits.

Second, Draghi's personal popularity far outstrips that of any Italian politician. He is easier to sell to the electorate than any of his prospective rivals.

A second Draghi term is Italy's best hope of completing the structural reforms it needs to turn its economic and social fortunes around. Another important process of renewal – that of its political class – must wait.

Author bio

Elettra Ardissino is an analyst at Greenmantle, a macroeconomic consultancy run by Niall Ferguson, and her work on the EU and Italian politics has appeared in Foreign Policy.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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