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Italy’s Draghi resigns after major parties abandon him

July 21, 2022 Updated Thu., July 21, 2022 at 12:21 p.m.

By Chico Harlan and Stefano Pitrelli Washington Post

ROME - Italy’s rancorous government collapse was finalized Thursday morning, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi resigning one day after major parties sat out a confidence vote.

Though Draghi had tried on Wednesday to make a case to stay on the job, the day ended instead with recriminations, deepened divisions and the overwhelming probability of elections in the fall that will favor a grouping of parties from the center right and far right.

The events bring a crashing end to a period of relative political unity in Rome and destabilize the European Union’s third-largest economy, in which Draghi was widely seen as a guarantor. For a year and a half, the centrist Draghi had led a broad, left-to-right government, and he’d marshaled his reputation - built as Europe’s former top central banker - to increase Italy’s influence in Brussels and vouch forcefully for a hard European line against Russia in its war in Ukraine.

But leaders of several coalition parties signaled Wednesday that they preferred something else.

“It’s over,” Draghi ally Matteo Renzi said on the Senate floor, as three major coalition members, chafed by a day of testy negotiations, announced they wouldn’t participate in the confidence vote.

Based on pure numbers, Draghi prevailed in the vote. But because the Five Star Movement, the League and Forward Italy decided not to take part, they effectively torpedoed the unity government.

The collapse became official Thursday morning, when Draghi met with President Sergio Mattarella and informed him of his resignation. Mattarella’s office said the president had “taken note” of the resignation and had asked his government to remain in place as a temporary caretaker.

What comes next for Italy, once elections are held, could be much different. The next government is likely to bring together a grouping of nationalist and center-right parties, including some that have held Euroskeptic and pro-Russian views. In recent days, some politicians loyal to Draghi had warned that Italy’s crisis was playing into the hands of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But it’s unclear what sort of approach these parties would take once in power. Giorgia Meloni, whose nationalist Brothers of Italy is the country’s most popular party and lone opposition group, has vocally backed Ukraine against Russia.

“We must consider what [Draghi’s departure] would mean for the resistance to Putin,” Enrico Letta, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, said in a phone interview. “Draghi has been and is a point of reference for all European leaders.”

Many political experts had expected that Draghi - over the course of a make-or-break day - would be able to persuade parties to recommit to the coalition. When he tried to resign last week, in response to a revolt over a bill by the Five Star Movement, he was rebuffed by President Sergio Mattarella, who urged him to return to Parliament and test his coalition one more time.

But by midafternoon Wednesday, fractures were evident everywhere: between Draghi and the right, between the right and the amorphous Five Star Movement, with the parties blaming one another for the breakdown. The parties, in recent months, had been increasingly at odds. Italy, under any circumstance, is required to hold a national vote by early next year - giving the parties incentive to differentiate themselves in the lead-up.

“The desire to move forward together has gradually faded,” Draghi said in a morning Senate address.

In that address, occasionally raising his voice, Draghi celebrated the government’s work in helping Italy through the worst of the pandemic emergency and, more recently, in scrambling to obtain alternative energy sources amid the Ukraine war. But he also issued a stern message, asking the coalition parties to recommit and end any attempts to subvert the government agenda. It was his effort to ensure that were he to shepherd his coalition to the finish line, it wouldn’t be messy.

“We need a new pact of trust - sincere and concrete,” Draghi said. “Are you ready to rebuild this pact?”

But he didn’t go out of his way to entice the populist Five Star Movement by mentioning its pet projects. And he took a veiled dig at the nationalist League, whose leader, Matteo Salvini, has voiced support for striking taxi drivers, whose protests Draghi called “violent” and “unauthorized.”

It soon became clear that the odds of a deal were faltering.

Before the confidence vote, parties from the far right and the center right had said in a joint note that they were all right with Draghi as leader - so long as the Five Star Movement wasn’t a part of the government. But Draghi had said he wanted to preside only over the widest possible coalition - including the Five Star Movement. Because he was unelected - handpicked by Mattarella to lead a unity government during a 2021 period of government crisis - he said he needed the widest possible backing to carry on.

In times of crisis, Italy’s president plays an outsize role. After previous government breakdowns, Mattarella has helped the country patch together new coalitions and avoid snap elections.

In theory, in the wake of Draghi’s resignation, Mattarella could try that again, finding a figure who could win a majority and carry Italy to the end of its legislative session. But given the acrimony - and the right wing’s incentive for an early vote - the odds of such a solution are minuscule. Far more probable is that elections are held in late September or October.

Ahead of the confidence vote, Draghi had received many entreaties to stay on a bit longer - including from more than 2,000 mayors in a petition. Polls showed that two-thirds of Italians want Draghi to stay on. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez wrote an op-ed in Politico saying, “Europe needs leaders like Mario.”

“A dark moment for Italy,” Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, wrote on Twitter. “The effects of this tragic choice will linger in history.”

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