Mario Draghi’s search for support leaves Matteo Salvini with painful choice

Having been unexpectedly thrust into the heart of Italy’s political crisis, Mario Draghi must now attempt to forge a new government of national unity or risk the country heading towards snap elections.

To succeed, the former European Central Bank president must convince enough of the country’s political parties to back him in a project that will shape Italy’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. On Wednesday, Mr Draghi was invited by President Sergio Mattarella to try to form a new government.

Yet doing so depends on winning the support of at least one of two parties that just three years ago formed a populist coalition openly hostile to Brussels and opposed the eurozone that Mr Draghi had pledged years before to do “whatever it takes” to save.

Both Matteo Salvini’s anti-migrant League party and the formerly anti-euro Five Star Movement — which have been scathing in the recent past about the type of technocratic government Mr Draghi is trying to create — face a difficult choice that is likely to define their political futures, as well as that of Italy.

Senior Five Star Movement figures have already said their group, the largest in the Italian parliament, will not back Mr Draghi. Yet inside the party, deep splits are already starting to show, with some lawmakers threatening to resign in order to support the attempt to form a new government.

Given the turmoil in the Five Star Movement, the decision taken by Mr Salvini will be critical to Mr Draghi’s chances.

According to estimates conducted by YouTrend, an Italian polling company, without the support or at least abstention of the League, Mr Draghi will not be able to command the majority he will need to govern. If the League votes to back Mr Draghi, his new government would have at least 199 votes out of 315 in the Senate and 400 out of 630 in the lower house. Without the support or abstention of the League, the simulation suggests a Draghi majority would only be possible with the support of Five Star.

Mr Salvini has said he remains open to supporting a unity government but prefers early elections. Many in his party, which has strong support among business owners in the country’s industrialised north, favour backing Mr Draghi. The League leader’s popularity in the polls has faded over the past year, weakening his personal authority inside his party. 

“Salvini is struggling to hold the party together, especially outside parliament, because the presidents of the regions do not follow him, while the business world wants a Draghi government,” said Gianluca Passarelli, professor of political science at Sapienza University in Rome.

“Salvini seems to be extending a hand towards Draghi of his own free will, but in reality he is forced to.” 

But if Mr Salvini signs up to the project, he risks leaving an opening to his emerging rival on the Italian right, Giorgia Meloni, whose Brothers of Italy party has surged in support. Ms Meloni has signalled that she would remain outside a unity government.

“This is a difficult moment for Salvini,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a political scientist at the University of Birmingham. “There are many in his party that will be very supportive of someone like Draghi trying to kickstart the economy. It is very clear from polling data that Meloni is a big threat to Salvini, and she is taking most of her support from the League.” 

If Mr Salvini does decide to back Mr Draghi, the League leader would have a chance to rebuild economic credibility for his party that was damaged by his attacks on “the Brussels bunker” and appearances with Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Rassemblement National.

“For Salvini this could be a chance to stop being radioactive,” said Francesco Galietti of the political risk consultancy Policy Sonar. “It is like joining the French foreign legion: you get a new passport and a new chance.” 

For the Five Star Movement, which has been part of Italy’s ruling coalition since its alliance with Mr Salvini in 2018, the decision may be even more painful.

“The air we breathe and the official line of the party is ‘no to Draghi’,” said one Five Star MP. “For us he represents the world of banks and powers against the activism which is at the roots of the party. However, there is already a visible crack in the movement and in the next few weeks anything can happen.”

A recent sharp fall in support for the party means many Five Star lawmakers fear a snap election. “There are several parliamentarians who may decide, or have already decided, not to respect the party line [about supporting Draghi],” the MP said. “They don’t want to go home.”

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