5 Winners And 4 Losers Of The Italian Government Collapse

From Conte’s Gambit to Dungeons and Draghi, the players change but the game goes on.

Mario Draghi
Mario Draghi at the World Economic Forum. World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

From Conte’s Gambit to Dungeons and Draghi, the players change but the game goes on. To the winners go the spoils, the losers just go home.

Another year, another Italian government. We began 2021 with the hopes that the coronavirus pandemic would begin fading into the background, but few would have had a full-blown crisis in mind. Yet for the last three weeks, an increasingly frustrated public watched as the Conte bis government stood for votes of confidence in both houses of Parliament, passed those votes, and was nonetheless unable to solidify their position to run the country. Enter Mario Draghi, the economist and former President of the European Central Bank, who was given the mandate to form a new coalition government. As the dust begins to settle, who is likely to come out on top? 

Winner: Matteo Renzi 

Well, he got what he wanted. The politician we all thought was gone instead rose from the ashes, albeit in one of the crudest and most flagrant abuses of constitutional norms that we’ve seen in a long time. Matteo Renzi forced the government crisis over what he claimed was a lack of transparency in the allocation of European Union funding and in so doing, split an already fractious coalition into splinters. But rather than spelling his end, the final result has only reinforced his presence in the political sphere, despite his courting Saudi leadership and broad unpopularity. His victory, while undeniable, has come at a cost — the appointment of a technocratic government only emboldens the calls for elections from the right, punting the ball downfield instead of working through coalition talks that could have kept a representative government in power. But what’s a little subterfuge when you can crawl your way back into the spotlight? Having Draghi in the poltrona means having an ally both at home and most importantly abroad: don’t be surprised if Renzi takes on a high profile role in the cabinet in the coming days, and his sycophantic campaign has already begun. Shocked? Don’t be. Renzi has been pulling for this since the last time he dined at the White House in 2016. 

Winner: Sergio Mattarella 

The President of the Republic is meant to be a somewhat symbolic role but in a government crisis in the midst of a global pandemic, it’s all hands on deck to find a solution as quickly as possible. At a time when we desperately needed an adult in the room, Mattarella managed to keep the conversation civil and to avoid too much public bickering about the process. Appointing Roberto Fico to convene parties for consultations kept the reshuffle from feeling too much like a technocratic government, which will buy time once Draghi formally assumes his role. This strategic move matters, as the government desperately needs to put the focus back on the national vaccination plan and the Recovery Fund, to name but two of the most pressing issues on the table. But it also shows the President’s political savvy: a constitutional law expert and long time statesman, Mattarella once again showed why it takes more than symbolism to get the job done. Staying above the fray is no small feat, and we desperately needed it. In the last weeks, Mattarella showed that the Presidency is a crucial role, particularly at a time when the wheels fall off of the political machine. No wonder Berlusconi wants it so badly. 

Winner: The Italian Right 

Giuseppe Conte devoted a significant portion of his parting remarks to emphasize the idea that the incoming government was not a technocratic one, but that won’t stop the opposition from screaming the contrary to anyone who will listen. If the parties on the right weren’t convinced of the previous government’s legitimacy, the appointment of Draghi as PM and a cabinet that will likely include its fair share of technocrats will hardly be able to count on their support for long. While Forza Italia has pledged to work with the Draghi government, both the Lega and the FI have made it clear that they want elections as soon as possible. It’s not hard to see why: the fractures in the center-left coalition give the Lega-FI a substantial lead in polls, with Georgia Meloni looking particularly good for a leadership role in any forthcoming elections. Until elections do happen, the right has a range of weapons in their arsenal to attack their weakened opponents on everything from resource allocation to democratic legitimacy. And the worst part is, they’ve got a point. If Matteo Renzi made the first cut, look for Georgia Meloni to drive the stake in. 

Winner: The United States 

If Mario Draghi is unfamiliar to most of us beyond the op-ed we all shared but never read, he’s an old friend to the United States and a close ally of the current Biden administration. Draghi’s ties to US financial institutions run deep: a graduate of MIT and fellow at both Harvard and Princeton Universities, he was the managing director of Goldman Sachs before being appointed to Governor of the Bank of Italy. The appointment of Draghi is a clear indication that Italy will move ever closer to the United States, both in policy and diplomacy. On the US side, having such a close ally in a position of influence not just in Europe but within the EU is a godsend for an administration fixed on rebuilding its brand after a disastrous four years. Sounds like a win-win, right? If you’re a fan of quantitative easing or helicopter money it sure is, as those are all concepts that Draghi either developed and advocated for as a result of his US ties. It may, however, be bad news for the social welfare programs, environmental investment, and backlogged infrastructure projects that the left strongly advocated under Conte, which will most certainly be pushed onto the back burner for the near to medium term. But hey, whatever it takes. 

Winner: The European Union 

The Italian crisis rattled the EU at the worst possible moment: although a founding member of the bloc, Italy’s political and economic instability has been a constant bugbear for the Union and at a moment when they’re getting ready to loosen the purse strings to the tune of more than 200 billion euro, the last thing they wanted was a sinking ship. Giuseppe Conte’s success at mending ties over disagreements about funding, immigration, and membership itself had been a welcome change but had also lulled EU ministers into a false sense of security, making this crisis a particularly pill to swallow. But Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel are breathing a sigh of relief today because they couldn’t have asked for a more familiar face than Draghi. As President of the European Central Bank, he is largely credited for saving the Euro from failing during the 2011 Eurozone crisis. There is every reason to believe that he’ll continue that campaign as Prime Minister, and he’s one of the few people in the world who has the vision to look beyond the current economic crisis towards long term regional strength and stability. Mario Draghi may not be a particularly charismatic figure and is unlikely to solve the myriad diplomatic issues that face the Union, but he can balance a checkbook better than almost anyone in the world, and that’s enough for the EU for now. 

Loser: Giuseppe Conte

Though it ended unceremoniously, our own Italian of the Year had a good run, perhaps a better one than anyone could possibly have predicted. But alas, all things must end and after his government failed to achieve an absolute majority in the Senate, the die had been cast. Giuseppe Conte led the Italian government through an unprecedented period, but more importantly he was inspiring at a time when it was desperately needed. He did so without resorting to the cheap political manoeuvering that we’ve come to expect from politicians desperate to hold on to their seats. But politics is a dirty game, and if you don’t get muddy then you’re not really playing. But he goes out on top, with high approval ratings from the public and a profile that will only continue to grow, particularly on the international stage. This is far from the end for Conte: we may see him reemerge at the European level in a role that utilizes both his legal expertise and his newly found statesmanship, or in a leadership role within the country. We may even see him resume his teaching duties, and should expect an upsurge in applicants for law school in Florence. History may just show that Giuseppe Conte was that rare bird: a public servant who really is in it for the good of the people, and he may have left it for the very same reason. 

Loser: The Italian Left & the Five Star Movement

Matteo Renzi’s recklessness in pulling Italia Viva out of the government coalition may have precipitated the crisis, but it was simply the last straw in an alliance that was shaky on its best days. The relationship between the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S) and the Democratic Party (PD) was always a marriage of convenience, so when a real threat emerged there was little chance they’d be able to set aside their fundamental differences and form a more solid partnership. The year-long government that PD President Nicola Zingaretti called an “experience” and then-M5S leader Luigi di Maio reluctantly agreed to, has ended with even less cohesion amongst the parties, and even more room for the right to move in on the electorate. Though the left, and the PD in particular, have a stronger hold on the regional level, their national status has been deeply damaged by the government collapse. Plus, they’ve still got to pass by Italia Viva representatives in the hallway on the way in and out of their offices. Awkward. 

Loser: Euroskeptics

While the Right may have gained ground in their push for new elections and an eventual grab of the poltrona, they’ll have to do so without one of their main points of contention: detachment and independence from the European Union. The Draghi government is almost tailor-made for the current regional and international context, and all bets are on a range of initiatives being negotiated both in Brussels and Rome. Enormous financial investment in the form of the Recovery Fund, along with Italy holding the chair of the G20 in 2021 means more, rather than less, economic integration, and terms and conditions will absolutely apply. Strings will be attached, and Brussels, in particular, will very likely find it hard to tolerate any more dissent from Italian domestic forces in the coming months. Thus, both on the Left and Right the Euroskeptics will have to find another cause around which they can rally, and rally their voters when elections roll around in 2023. Oh well, they can always hope for another government crisis before then; they do tend to happen more frequently than the World Taekwondo Championships. 

Loser: Italy

Crisis may be something of a persistent feature in Italian politics, but this one hits different. Italians have a generally sanguine attitude towards political machinations and know their system quite well: its hardly ever surprising when governments collapse because simply put, “it’s not that simple.” But this year was different. The COVID-19 emergency forced people to look to the government for answers and while they didn’t always have the right ones, it genuinely felt like they were trying. As a result, the relationship between government and civil society in Italy had reached a better position than it had been in decades, with high approval ratings not just for the handling of the pandemic, but for the restoration of Italy’s status abroad. The fact that even a global pandemic couldn’t prevent a breakdown of the parties charged with running the country isn’t just a failure of government, it’s a betrayal of that little bit of trust that had been earned. Mario Draghi may do just fine; he may do splendidly, even. But his very presence is a reminder that the state has failed its citizens at a time when they needed it the most, and there isn’t enough helicopter money in the world to fix that.  

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