ROME — Italy’s government broke apart in rancor on Wednesday, as major parties sat out a confidence vote and delivered a stinging blow to Prime Minister Mario Draghi, setting the stage for his almost-certain resignation.
The events brought a crashing end to a period of relative political unity in Rome and destabilizes the European Union’s third-largest economy, where Draghi was widely seen as a guarantor. For 1½ years, the centrist Draghi has 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 ongoing 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.
Draghi, in a surprise, chose not to tender his resignation in the immediate aftermath — a move that would have required a visit to the presidential palace. He will instead appear before the lower house on Thursday morning. Giovanni Orsina, director of the school of government at Luiss-Guido Carli University in Rome, said Draghi’s resignation nonetheless seemed inevitable.
“I don’t see any possibility politically to rebuild the situation,” Orsina said.
What comes next for Italy, whenever 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 party is the country’s most popular 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 anticipated 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 attempt 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 okay 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.
If and when Draghi resigns, Mattarella could in theory 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. Even in the event of a resignation, Draghi is likely to stay on as a placeholder in the lead-up to vote, which could be 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 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.”