Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette


Mario Draghi became Prime Minister of Italy on 13 February following the resignation of Giuseppe Conte. 

Conte had served two Prime Ministerial terms. He was nominated by President Sergio Mattarella and given a parliamentary vote of confirmation, but he has never held an elected post. He had a background as a law professor and had voted on the centre-left. The largest governing party Five Star (M5S) suggested him as an independent and impartial Prime Minister who would act as a non-political coordinator. His role was to keep the uneasy peace between the two largest and very dissimilar parties: the populist M5S and right-wing Lega. He was very effective in the role, gaining credibility and authority as time went on. He coped with the Covid crisis and introduced significant pieces of legislation, such as a minimum wage and a reduction in the numbers of parliamentarians. He also nationalised Alitalia the Italian national airline, ASPI, the Italian highways company and ILVA, Italy’s largest steel company. 

Conte resigned after Matteo Renzi’s tiny Italia Viva (Iv) party withdrew its support and destabilised his second administration This was a M5S and Partito Democratico (Pd) centre-left coalition Government. By the end he had become the longest serving independent Prime Minister with a very high national approval rating of 65%. A few days after leaving office he joined M5S as a member. He later said that he would like a political role. Beppe Grillo, founder of M5S, obviously seeing his popularity as an asset, offered him a senior role, seeing him as a senior figure capable of leading the Movement’s relaunch. 72% of M5S members gave him their overwhelming support, thereby changing their management structure from a small group to a single leader. This happened in a party opposed to the personalisation of politics. 

M5S is a curious body, run as a private company, with the Piattaforma Rousseau – a web platform used for member discussion and voting. This was set up by Grillo’s co-founder Gianroberto Casaleggo and has been run since his death by his son Davide. In recent years the fall in national vote share for M5S has been “dramatic and constant” ( the Movement are very concerned about the national elections in 2023. There have been serious internal divisions and, in comparison with the operating styles of all other parties, it palpably lacks leadership, focus and drive. No other M5S politician has the winning charisma of Grillo and he has always said that he does not want to lead the group. 

M5S has several structural problems. Casaleggo’s Rousseau, takes in the funds for the organisation, but discord among members and parliamentarians has resulted in non-payments and a cash crisis. Casaleggo also issued a manifesto with his own organisational and political demands. Action obviously needs to be taken to de-escalate what was described some time ago as “fratricide”, which is not only damaging M5S but could end in legal battles.

There is a long-standing rule that no M5S politician can serve more than two terms. In fact, as Ivo Diamanti (La Repubblica 22 March) wrote, M5S is “a party of the anti-party – a non-party, an alternative to not-voting”. And the Movement views itself as THE non-corrupt political alternative to established parties and career politicians. Many candidates for the next election – with reduced numbers of seats available – welcome the chance of a candidature. Other well-known figures don’t share the enthusiasm as they will become ineligible to stand again. Grillo was quoted in La Repubblica (25 March) as saying that “We will not abandon those who finish their second term”. Grillo’s sudden entry into the Movement’s decision-making was unexpected and if it continues it could compromise Conte’s role. A La Repubblica editorial (30 March) examined his possibly anomalous position.

Conte has drawn up his priorities for the Movement, which include a continuing but expanding emphasis on the environment. Also, as Diamante says, it might change its Statutes and become a political party. The irony of an avowedly anti-establishment group becoming part of the establishment has not been lost on commentators.

The question of a future alliance with the Pd under its new leader is also being considered. Views within the Movement encompass all the possible options while there are those who reject any cosying up to established parties. Nicola Zingaretti, the Pd‘s previous leader, had a reasonable working relationship with M5S but he resigned as Pd party leader at the beginning of March. And although “Zinga” appears to have gone, he has not left the scene and has positive working relationships with Draghi, Conte and the new Pd leader Enrico Letta. 

Zingaretti has also been President of Lazio since 2013, and, as a mark of his popularity, was elected for a second term. His background is left of centre and moves to take the party to the left caused tensions and precipitated his resignation as leader. He was a member of the European Parliament and at one point was on Rome’s City Council. It is being suggested that he might stand as the mayor of Rome in forthcoming elections. This would cause uneasy tensions between the Pd and M5S as their mayoral incumbent, Virginia Raggi, is standing again. Her reputation for competence is tarnished and a candidate with confident authority could unseat her.

The Pd under Letta is obviously different. Several parliamentarians have defected back from Renzi’s newly founded Ivparty, two of them calling Renzi “unscrupulous” for the way that he brought down the Conte Government. Others might follow. According to Giovanna Vitale (La Repubblica 14 March) the new leader “won’t radiate napalm … it’s not his style”. Does Letta’s name seem familiar? He was the Prime Minister from April 2013 to February 2014, managing a coalition of the centre-left and centre-right. He has government ministerial experience, has been a Euro MP and was Deputy Secretary of the Pd for four years. 

His programme is liberal rather than centrist and Alessandro De Nicola, writing in La Repubblica, sees him as a liberal democrat in the same distinctive mould as previous leaders such as Cavour, Mazzini and others less well-known outside Italy. Their uniting factor according to him is that they were men of thought and action. 

Renzi offered cooperation to the Pd at his Iv party’s recent Convention. He couldn’t resist a bit of mudslinging and he attacked Beppe Grillo as “prejudiced and unscrupulous”. But opinion polls (30 March give Iv an average of 2.5%, while Letta’s Pd & M5S have both advanced a few points to 19% and 16.3% respectively. 

Meanwhile, according to Ipsos, Draghi has an unassailable lead at 61%, although says that he is sliding a few points and counts his average as slightly lower, with Conte coming up in second place. However, his job couldn’t be more difficult with Covid and the tensions over restrictions common to other European countries. Beppe Grillo paid him a complement – widely reported on 26 March. Draghi is “not just a cold banker without a soul”.

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