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The Mattarella-Draghi Italian Duo

ARTICLES - 27 July 2022

Forged in the turmoil of a political, health and economic crisis, the Draghi-Mattarella duo led Italy from February 2021 to the end of July 2022. They complied with the functions laid out in the constitution for the two presidential roles: President of the Republic and President of the Council of Ministers. One is a seasoned politician, the other a technical economist. They have worked together in the hope of reaching their joint objectives by the spring of 2023. Some parties decided otherwise on July 20 and early elections will be held on September 25. The future of the country, but also that of the European Union, will largely depend on the outcome of this election. In this installment of our Seeing Double series devoted to power sharing, historian Marc Lazar retraces the path walked by this newly created pair, which has already booked several wins.

Since early 2021, almost every mention of Italy included Mario Draghi's name - and with good reason. In addition to the reputation he acquired over the course of a brilliant career, the President of the Council of Ministers enjoyed real popularity among Italians for his place in the country's political landscape. At the European level, attended European Council meetings, where Italy's voice was heard thanks to him. He also made proposals to speed up the process of European integration. Through the war in Ukraine, he asserted himself more clearly as one of Europe's main leaders. The most obvious illustration of this is the highly symbolic and widely publicized trip he made to Kiev with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on June 17.

It is worth noting, however, that Mario Draghi owed his position to the will of one man: the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella. From the Quirinal presidential palace, located on one of the Eternal City's seven hills, Sergio Mattarella chose to install Mario Draghi in the Chigi Palace, the seat of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, eight hundred meters below his own residence. But this topographical arrangement was not symbolic of a hierarchical and distant relationship between the two men and their offices. In fact, though Mario Draghi was more often in the media spotlight than Sergio Mattarella, Italy was truly run by a duo, or better yet, a tandem.

The duo's genesis

To better understand why the President of the Republic wanted this tandem, a quick recap of recent history is needed. In the spring of 2018, parliamentary elections were held for the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. No absolute majority was attained, but with nearly 32.6%, the Five Star Movement, an extremely disruptive populist party, garnered the most votes. The outcome led to an impasse: the Five Star Movement declined all suggestions for an alliance, before ultimately establishing a government with the League, a far-right party allied with the center-right coalition. From that point on, the previous antagonism between the two parties seemed to be of the past. Giuseppe Conte assumes the position of Council President; he is a law professor with close ties to the Five Star Movement.

Before long, this coalition of two populist parties became the source of controversies. In 2019, it even triggered a diplomatic crisis with Paris. France recalled its ambassador following theMontargis meeting (not formally announced) between Luigi Di Maio, Vice-President of the Council and member of the Five Star Movement, and a delegation of France’s "yellow vests" movement (gilets jaunes). In addition, the League and the Five Star Movement were in competition and disagreement with each other on many issues. Matteo Salvini, Minister of the Interior, second Vice-President of the Council and member of the League, was popular for his anti-migrant, Islam and EU stances. In the EU parliamentary elections of spring 2019, his party received over 34% of the votes. Based on this success, and on favorable polls domestically, Matteo Salvini tried to instigate a political crisis in August 2020, with the aim of dissolving the Chambers and forcing early elections, which he hoped to win. Giuseppe Conte resisted, but eventually submitted his resignation to Sergio Mattarella, President of the Republic since 2015. The latter, however, refused to dissolve the Chambers. Matteo Salvini was relegated back to the opposition instead. To avoid an early dissolution of the Chambers, Giuseppe Conte formed a second government with a very different coalition: the Five Star Movement, the center-left Democratic Party, Italia Viva - Matteo Renzi’s small party that sprung out of a break with the Democratic Party - and Free and Equal, positioned even further on the left end of Italy’s political spectrum. These parties and their leaders differed in many ways, but all were keen to avoid early elections. Relatively quickly however, Matteo Renzi became alarmed by the relative popularity of the President of the Council, who overshadowed him while he was still trying to make his mark on Italy's competitive political scene. He also did not feel that Giuseppe Conte was up to the challenges presented by the gradual recovery from the Covid-19 crisis, especially the task of drawing up the recovery plan that was to be submitted to the European Commission. 

The President of the Republic, noting the inability of parliamentarians to form a majority, decided to take back control and called on Mario Draghi.

In January 2021, Matteo Renzi pulled his party out of the coalition, thus toppling the government. It is then that the President of the Republic, noting the inability of parliamentarians to form a majority, decided to take back control and called on Mario Draghi. How did the President of the Republic land on Draghi? He made his reasoning very clear in a solemn speech held on February 2, 2021. For context, the Covid-19 pandemic was still ongoing and Italy was the main beneficiary of the €191 billion dedicated to the recovery plan by the EU. Sergio Mattarella explained that a dissolution of the Chambers and early elections would ring in a period of instability and uncertainty that was too risky for Italy.

Instead, he wanted to put in place a government "di alto profilo" which loosely translates to "a high-profile government", that would span the political spectrum and be able to tackle the most pressing issues as quickly and effectively as possible. This was imperative, in his view: Italians were expecting action and Italy’s credibility in the EU was at stake. It is against this backdrop that the President of the Republic called on Mario Draghi to come to the rescue. His name had been circulating in the small world of Italian politics for almost a year. He then formed a national unity government (the extreme right-wing Italian Brotherhood was the only party that refused to join).

Faced with major challenges, Italian politicians called on an apolitical "savior", a technician. This was not the first time in the Republic’s history. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, for example, was Governor of the Bank of Italy until 1993 and moved on to become President of the Council from 1993 to 1994, and finally President of the Republic from 1999 to 2006. Mario Monti, professor at the prestigious Bocconi University in Milan, was President of the Council from 2011 to 2013. Unlike his two predecessors, though, Mario Draghi is not tasked with carrying out widespread austerity policies; on the contrary, he has to determine how to spend massive amounts of money intelligently. Moreover, while not a career politician, Mario Draghi has acquired a great deal of political experience through the "technical" positions he held, notably as Governor of the Bank of Italy and President of the European Central Bank.

A duo complementing each other

The Draghi-Mattarella duo is built on scrupulous compliance with the functions assigned to the two presidencies by the Constitution. The President of the Republic, elected by parliamentarians and other electors for a period of seven years, is the head of state. They have the power to dissolve the Chamber, to appoint the President of the Council and, on the latter’s proposition, to appoint the ministers who make up the government. They co-sign laws and promulgate them, appoint senior state officials, assume command of the armed forces and chair the High Council of the Judiciary. The President of the Council of Ministers, on the other hand, directs the government's policy and is held accountable for it. They coordinate the ministers’ work. In practice, the executive branch has been stronger than the legislative branch for decades. This applies especially to the President of the Council, who has more de facto influence than the President of the Republic.

Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi are very different, but complementary and effective as a duo. Sergio Mattarella is a Sicilian born in 1941. Initially a constitutional law professor, he has a long and traditional Italian political track record. From a young age, he was active in Catholic youth associations and joined the party Christian Democracy in 1980, where he was one of the more left-leaning members.

Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi are very different, but complementary and effective as a duo.

After the dissolution of that party in the early 1990s, he remained on the center-left. He has occupied several ministerial posts and was a judge at the Constitutional Court before becoming President of the Republic in 2015.

Born in Rome in 1947, Mario Draghi is an economist who has had a brilliant career marked by international experience. He completed his doctorate at MIT in Boston and subsequently held academic positions for several years. From 1991 to 2001, he was Director General of the Italian Treasury. After a brief stint at Goldman Sachs, he became Governor of the Bank of Italy in 2006, where he remained for five years. He excelled in his 2011-2019 mandate as President of the European Central Bank, particularly during the European sovereign debt crisis. His famous "whatever it takes" statement in 2012 almost immediately put an end to the currency speculation then underway with the euro; as such, he helped save the European single currency.

On the one hand, we have a politician with little knowledge of economic issues; on the other hand, an economist not well versed in all the intricacies of political games but used to negotiating with political leaders. These two divergent backgrounds have proven to be complementary and effective: both men have turned their respective strengths into an asset. When tensions build up between political parties in the executive branch, the two presidents form a united front to prevent escalation into a crisis that could threaten the stability of the government. Their common objective is to see the country through to the end of the legislature next spring, in order to set Italy on the path of transformation they believe is necessary. They enjoy support from other political actors, especially the Democratic Party, but also the European Commission and the financial markets. Italian journalists who follow them closely are unanimous in their observation that the two presidents have developed a strong personal relationship based on mutual trust and esteem. Each has his own style: Mario Draghi speaks little - to the annoyance of party leaders and journalists alike - and works closely with a small, trusted and loyal team he formed himself, especially when it comes to economic matters. As a result, Sergio Mattarella speaks in public more often than the President of the Council, but always in accordance with protocol and in his typical reserved manner.

A duo with shared objectives - and occasional tension

The tandem works because both presidents know that they are striving for the same goals. With regards to the pandemic, their vaccination policy has been successful, despite protests by anti-vaxxers. Another priority is the implementation of the recovery plan known in Italy as the PNRR, or National Recovery and Resilience Plan, not only to ensure the economy bounces back but also in the interest of future transformations. This primordial task is Mario Draghi's responsibility. His main priorities are to digitalize the country, encourage business innovation, improve competitiveness, develop the cultural sector, promote the "green revolution" and the ecological transition, develop transport infrastructure in order to fluidify traffic flows, provide environmentally friendly mobility options, make significant investments in education and research, implement policies to promote social inclusion and cohesion, and make a considerable effort to improve public health. In addition, state modernization projects are underway, in particular wide-ranging public administration reforms, with in-depth training for civil servants.

Both Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi intend to consolidate Italy's place in the European Union. 

At the same time, both Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi intend to consolidate Italy's place in the European Union. Sergio Mattarella is known as a long-time, consistent and respected pro-European. Mario Draghi’s prestige, experience and reputation further contribute to making Italy a key player. The country commands respect from its counterparts, including from "the frugal countries".

Along with Emmanuel Macron, Italy is working toward a change to the Maastricht Treaty, with the aim to reinforce Europe’s strategic autonomy through common defense and security policy, and to develop a coordinated policy on migration. France-Italy relations are excellent, as evidenced by the signing of the Quirinal Treaty in November 2021. Even on a personal level, Emmanuel Macron maintains a warm and friendly relationship with both Mattarella and Draghi, and there is solid mutual trust.

With regards to the Ukraine crisis, Sergio Mattarella and Mario Draghi both strongly condemned Russia's invasion. They provided logistical assistance to Ukraine, increased military spending and agreed - admittedly, after a moment’s hesitation - to impose sanctions against Moscow despite Italy's strong dependence on Russian gas. At the end of May, Italy proposed a peace plan, though it did not go anywhere. The tough stance of the executive is running into criticism from within the government itself, notably from the pro-Russian League as well as part of the Five Star Movement, which has strong pacifist tendencies. 

The Italian public overwhelmingly condemns Russian aggression and expresses broad solidarity with Ukrainians, but is much more reserved about sending arms to Vlodymyr Zelenskyy's troops. It is eager for peace, as evidenced by a major survey conducted in Europe in June showing that Italy is the country with the largest pacifist camp. Demonstrations have been held to demand an end to the war and to protest the government's firm response to the conflict. These attitudes attest to the persistence of an old pacifist tradition in Italy, rooted in the histories of Catholicism and communism. A minority on the far left places the main responsibility for the conflict on the United States and tends to attribute as much blame to Ukraine as to Russia for the outbreak of the war. Pacifists play on Italians' fears that the government's policies would prolong and extend the war, with significant negative impacts on growth, inflation and purchasing power.

Nevertheless, the Italien executive branch is proving to be more pro-Atlantic than ever. Proof of this is the President of the Council’s meeting with Joe Biden in Washington DC last month, where the US President referred to Mario Draghi as "a good friend and a great ally".

One of the last objectives of the Draghi-Mattarella government is to fight populism by appealing to a sense of shared responsibility and national unity. This is why Enrico Letta, previous dean of the Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA) at Sciences Po Paris, has agreed to return to his country to lead the Democratic Party and establish it as the Draghi government’s main supporter. Nevertheless, populism is present in both the government and the parliamentary majority. This is the case of the League and the Five Star Movement, but also of the Italian Brotherhood, which is growing rapidly. At the G7 summit in late June, Mario Draghi stressed that inflation and possible socio-economic deteriorations could benefit these parties. If so, he said, the future of not just Italy but the entire European Union would be in jeopardy.

Though united, the Mattarella-Draghi couple did go through a moment of uncertainty. When President Mattarella's term in office was due to expire at the beginning of 2022 and he announced urbi et orbi that he intended to step down, it was common knowledge that Mario Draghi had ambitions to succeed him, although he had never formally announced as much. However, this proved impossible for various reasons and Sergio Mattarella ultimately agreed to stay on for a second term. Well-informed Italian journalists claim that Mario Draghi was upset and hurt by this outcome and that relations between the two men have been less warm and more distant ever since. Moreover, since the beginning of the year, the 5-Star Movement, the League and Forza Italia, and the PD have been putting forward their own proposals and marking their differences in view of the next elections to garner support. A kind of political guerrilla warfare was taking place. 

In this context, during the government crisis that broke out in early summer, the Draghi-Mattarella duo was severely tested, to a point of no return. Indeed, on July 14, as criticism from the 5-Star Movement became increasingly harsh, Mario Draghi asked the Senate for a confidence vote. He obtained it, but as the senators of the 5-Star Movement deliberately deserted the Chamber, the President of the Council considered that he no longer had a large majority. He immediately presented his resignation to the President of the Republic, who refused it, asking him to return to the Chambers five days later. Was it a simple role play between the two men to gain time and hope to recompose the majority? Or was it a fundamental disagreement between an experienced politician, cunning and used to negotiations, and an impulsive economist, used to deciding and acting, irritated by the actions of the leaders of the parties, who were already preoccupied by the elections?

It is impossible to say. In any case, on Wednesday, July 20, the President of the Council appeared before the Senate and gave a very firm speech. The 5-Star Movement, Forza Italia, the League and Fratelli d'Italia did not participate in the vote. Mario Draghi was therefore condemned, but this also represents a terrible defeat for the President of the Republic, who, until the last moment, did not stop intervening to save "his" Prime Minister. 

A terrible defeat for the President of the Republic, who, until the last moment, did not stop intervening to save "his" Prime Minister.

Conclusion

The Draghi-Mattarella duo lasted one year, five months and seven days. They failed to implement their ambitious reform program. In the future, historians will draw up a complete balance sheet of what was undertaken. Mario Draghi will probably not go into politics. Instead, the Democratic Party, and various small centrist parties will go before the voters in loyal support of Draghi’s action. This in the hope that his popularity, which remains high despite him leaving Palazzo Chigi, and the mobilization of civil society (requesting an extension of Draghies experience between July 14 and 20) will benefit them at the ballot box. Perhaps Mario Draghi, like the legendary Cincinnatus, will return to a humble civilian life, while standing in reserve for the Italian Republic or the EU. For his part, Sergio Mattarella will remain President. At the time of his re-election, he clearly announced his intention to serve until the end of his seven-year term, normally in 2029 when he will be 88 years old. However, the end of the duo forged with Mario Draghi undoubtedly weakened him because of the strong support he gave him. So it is from a "President on the defensive" position that he will have to work with the center-right grouping of Forza Italia, the League and the Italian Brotherhood led by Giorgia Meloni's party, and which according to current polls, is expected to win the elections. She could be chosen by Sergio Mattarella for the Presidency of the Council. In this case, the two of them would unquestionably form a drastically different duo.

 

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