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A selfish Italian political class avoids disaster at the last minute

It takes a special effort to get the politicians from the First Republic of Italy in a good light, but over the past week, the politicians from the Second Republic have managed it.

The process by which they re-elected Sergio Mattarella as president of Italy revealed a political class that was deeply at odds with itself, yet with a common selfish interest in its own survival. Mattarella’s re-election averts a short-term catastrophe – the collapse of Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s reformist government. But that leaves serious doubt as to whether Italy’s professional politicians, maneuvering with advantage ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, are capable of invoking a greater sense of responsibility for the country, as it stands at a critical time in its development.

The first republic is the informal term used to describe the political system that ruled Italy from the aftermath of World War II until the early 1990s, when it collapsed in a storm of bribery and other scandals. The Second Republic, which has faltered from crisis to crisis over the last 30 years, should represent a fresh start for politics.

The events of the past week, on the contrary, show the sad shortcomings of the political parties of the Second Republic – whether they are relatively old, like the hard right-wing league, or relatively new, like the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Increasingly, Italian democracy has come to rely on the leadership and stability of the talents and maturity of non-political figures, such as Draghi, who are brought in to stabilize the ship because the elected politicians cannot do it themselves.

Italy’s EU partners and financial markets will be relieved that in the next 12 months or so, Draghi will be able to consolidate the reforms he has pursued since becoming prime minister a year ago. These reforms, which draw on the approximately 200 billion. EUR 750 billion available to Italy from the EU. euro pandemic recovery fund, is once a generation opportunity to boost growth, jobs and innovation in an economy that has languished in stagnation and high public debt. since the 1990s.

It may even turn out that Mattarella will only serve part of his second seven-year term, giving Draghi a chance to move to the presidency and continue to oversee the reforms. Such a result, however, is far from guaranteed and will still leave open the question of how far a government formed after next year’s elections will have a sincere commitment to reform.

It was remarkable to see politicians clapping for themselves last Saturday when, in the eighth round of elections in a week, they finally united behind Mattarella. For the former stalemate underscored the significant disagreement in Draghi’s “national unity” government. Not for nothing did Enrico Letta, leader of the Democratic Center-Left Party, lament that the presidential election revealed “a political system that is blocked” and that “does not work”.

Like Giorgio Napolitano, who in 2013 agreed to serve another term as president only with the deepest reluctance, Mattarella did not seek re-election. But the political parties could not find anyone in their own ranks with either the national stature or the cross-party political appeal to replace Mattarella.

Eventually, they decided on another term for the 80-year-old president, only because they feared that any other move could trigger the fall of Draghi’s government and an early election. For many of them, this entailed the risk of fewer parliamentary seats and loss of power, privileges and pensions.

In the midst of these self-interested calculations, one party is paving a significant path – the far-right brothers in Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni. It is the only major party that refused to join Draghi’s government, and opinion polls show that it is currently the most popular party on the right side of the political spectrum. Italy may be barely a year away from deciding whether to install its first radical right-wing prime minister in the post-war period.

tony.barber@ft.com

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