Italian prime minister Mario Draghi. Photo: Independent Photo Agency Srl / Alamy Stock Photo

Salvation by banker: why Mario Draghi will not save Italy

A new technocratic government will only deepen the crisis of Italian democracy
February 27, 2021

On 3rd February, Italy’s president, Sergio Mattarella, tasked Mario Draghi, former president of the European Central Bank, with the creation of a new government. The move followed three whirling weeks in which former prime minister Matteo Renzi pulled the plug on Giuseppe Conte’s government, a coalition led by the anti-system Five Star Movement and the centre-left Partito Democratico.

This move, which left everyone dumbfounded, was allegedly motivated by disagreement over how to spend the EU’s “Next Generation” Covid recovery funds. After a clumsy attempt to stitch together a new majority in parliament, Conte was forced to resign. Mattarella organised a round of consultation with all parties and, when it became clear that there was no straightforward way to patch the government back together, decided to call on “Super Mario,” who duly installed his disciple Daniele Franco in the ministry of the economy, and put the Northern League’s Giancarlo Giorgetti in charge of economic development. These appointments together suggest those EU funds will upbe redirected towards investments in the industrial north, rather than state expenditure in the poorer south.

Turning towards a banker for political salvation may strike outsiders as a strange thing to do in these times, but it follows a playbook that Italians know all too well. Whenever parliament is stuck in reciprocal vetoes, the temptation is to look outside of parliamentary politics, for a technocrat to break the gridlock and “save the country.” Yet this is the fourth time in 30 years that the country has needed saving by experts, the second in a decade. This might mean that the country has long been in a truly desperate state—or that these “technicians” are not that efficient after all. Or, perhaps, both.

This time round, it’s not even clear what the technocrats are meant to be saving the country from—other than early elections. Mattarella has been keen to avoid these because they could play into the hands of nationalists, notably Giorgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy and Matteo Salvini of the League, both far-right parties; at one point in the crisis, the latter had implausibly suggested bringing back the controversial three-time former PM Silvio Berlusconi as President of the Republic in 2022. What establishment figures like Mattarella don’t seem to give enough thought to is why recent elections keep producing the “wrong” results.

Elections rarely return clear majorities, which can give small parties, such as Renzi’s, disproportionate power as kingmakers in the stitching together of unwieldy coalitions, which then often collapse before the end of their term. And since 2018, two of the three major forces in parliament have been anti-system parties: the League and the Five Star Movement. 

The success of both over the last 10 years closely tracks the growing dissatisfaction with the consequences of a previous technocratic government, that inaugurated under economist Mario Monti in November 2011 to drive through “tears and blood” austerity measures, which duly fuelled euroscepticism and general unhappiness. And yet, Monti’s government had been formed by the initiative of the then-president, Giorgio Napolitano, precisely to save the country from an earlier crisis due to an explosive mix of Berlusconi’s personal scandals and his government’s drift over the eurozone crisis.

The cycle, then, is one of dysfunctional politics leading to technocratic governments leading to more dysfunction, and then renewed technocratic efforts which, soon enough, provoke more instability. Over time, governments packed with purportedly neutral experts have only fuelled the turbulent politics they were appointed to soothe. 

But the politicians repeatedly capitulate to technocracy because—at the cost of a temporary loss of relevance—they can duck controversial decisions for themselves. Besides, they don’t wish to be seen to undermine national unity during a crisis: this time, only Meloni’s Brother of Italy and a few scattered MPs voted against Draghi’s government. This acquiescence in turn renders the technocrats unaccountable, deepening the pre-existing crises of Italian democracy. Draghi and several key ministers do not have to answer to anyone: they have not been elected, are not likely to run for office in the future, owe no loyalty to any party and face little pressure in parliament. The logic of democratic politics is thus upended: impotent electors, powerful unaccountable technocrats and irresponsible parties.

The suspension of parliamentary opposition and electoral accountability must always be a concern—but especially when an unaccountable government is called to make fundamental, and fundamentally political, decisions about the future of the country. In the past, these decisions have involved sweeping privatisations, public spending cuts and market deregulations. Even on their own, such decisions can destabilise a country; but when it is difficult to hold anybody accountable for them, the result is frustration that soon translates into surging support for the populists. No wonder that technocracy keeps failing to save Italy. I doubt it will start succeeding this time around.