Mario Draghi’s government in Italy is over. But Europe has a new political figure on its stage. The latest Italian political crisis, which has brought to an abrupt close 16 months of serious government, has also forced Draghi, known best as the consummate central banker, to come out as the politician he always was. In an impassioned speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, the technocrat brought in to lead a cross-party unity government and Italy out of the pandemic, presented himself as a man of the Italian people. The response of the populist-nativist parties was to bring down the government.

But Draghi’s emergence as a political force — should he choose to go that way — has huge significance in the longer term not just for Italy but Europe.

A single week has again proved a long time in politics. On July 14, the former European Central Bank president set off the tumult by handing in his resignation to President Sergio Mattarella after the largest party in the coalition refused to back him in a confidence vote. Last week’s Draghi seemed set in his conviction to quit, according to people close to him. But the Draghi who took the floor this week came out to fight.

In a combative speech, he addressed the central defect of his current role: He wasn’t elected but appointed. As the responsibility of the Draghi government moved from clear-cut pandemic management that weakness has made it increasingly difficult for him to govern. Corralling the far right and populist left-wing elements in his unruly coalition as Italy faces rising energy prices, rampant inflation, war in Europe, and the possibility of social unrest in the autumn was increasingly a hopeless task.

So in his crucial pivot on Wednesday, Draghi said he’d been moved to rescind his resignation — depending on getting support from political parties – because of the “unprecedented” calls for him to stay: specifically, the more than 2,000 mayors who reportedly signed a petition to that end. For Draghi, the mayors were particularly influential because they were “in touch daily with their communities.” In effect, it was a proxy people’s vote. 

That was enough for the populist Five Star Movement and hard-right League parties to push the government to a brutal close by abstaining from backing Draghi in a confidence vote. Draghi on Thursday definitively resigned — his exit was accepted by Mattarella — setting Italy on course for elections no later than October.

It’s high time Italians went to vote. Technocratic government was already stretched beyond its limits given mounting global challenges. In the context of the realpolitik of Italy’s gladiatorial politics it’s also no wonder Italy’s populist-nativist politicians wanted Draghi out of power: He presents the biggest threat to their existence. 

Draghi’s new politicized persona suits him far better than the “grandfather at the service of the institutions” he presented himself to be in his failed bid for the Italian presidency in January. (It was a role he openly hankered for but was denied by parliamentarians who feared his keeping long-term influence over government.) Four times during his Wednesday speech, he called on his fellow politicians, “Are you ready?” exhorting them to back his call for unity and a continuation of his reform program to increase economic competitiveness and the country’s influence until the end of its mandate in the spring. But it may well have been that it was the Italian people who were the bigger audience he was addressing.

It was always the case that Draghi the politician was waiting in the wings just behind Draghi the economist and Draghi the technocrat. The man who said he’d do “whatever it takes” to save the eurozone in 2012 clearly has an acute political sense. But it poses a big question.

Draghi has always said he will not stand for elected office when this government ended. There’s a precedent that makes his reticence understandable. Mario Monti, who led a technocratic government during the eurozone crisis, failed dismally when he ran for political office. Still, Draghi’s offer to U-turn on his resignation inevitably raises expectations that he could, perhaps, do another U-turn if he felt there were popular demand for him to run for office. Centrist politicians, and Italy’s traditional center-left Democrat Party, already plan to channel the “spirit” of Draghi to gain support in the upcoming vote but that’s unlikely to have the same pull as the man himself.

It would be naïve too to believe it’s just the outpouring from the mayors that brought out the politician in Draghi this week. Global leaders, from the US to the Europe, publicly asked him to stay. The 16 months under his steady hand have turned him from a nice-to-have to a must-have among western leaders.

There had been glee in Moscow that Draghi, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, could be on his way out — and just days after the exit of Boris Johnson in the UK, another ally of Ukrainian President Volodymdyr Zelenskiy. Draghi turned that into a veritable campaign position. In one his more thunderous passages, he condemned Russian interference in Italy and reiterated his country’s support for Ukraine.

Draghi is also an assuring figure for the other proxy for a popular vote: the markets. There were jitters at the potential for pressure on Italian bond yields because of Draghi’s exit. Ratings agencies Fitch and others have warned of the effect on Italian sovereign debt at a time when the ECB is already grappling with inflation. That nervousness was gone by the time he made his speech, but ramped up again when it was clear his government was imperiled again. Spreads on Italian 10-year BTPs over Germany’s benchmark bunds extended to more than 240 basis points on Thursday, a level traditionally seen as putting refinancing for Italian banks and businesses under severe strain. That spread went to as low as about 100 basis point at the start of Draghi’s government.

The most violent attack against Draghi this week came from Giorgia Meloni, the opposition leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy. Polls have long predicted that her party will emerge the biggest winner if elections were called today, with around 22% of votes, slightly ahead of the center-left Democrat Party. That’s no surprise. He is surely the biggest electoral threat to Meloni and her ambitions should he ever decide to run.

That outcome is, at this stage, very unlikely. But what is certain from the civic outpouring at Draghi’s departure is there is a significant slice of Italy that believes in his vision. That’s some consolation as Italians head to vote this autumn, almost 100 years to the month when Benito Mussolini got parliament’s backing to get full power over government, a crucial event in the build-up to World War II. That uncanny coincidence should give everyone pause too.

More From This Writer and Others at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Draghi’s Left His Mark Even If Coalition Falls: Rachel Sanderson

• Draghi Turmoil Is Bad News for Italy and Europe: Maria Tadeo

• The ECB Needs a Bazooka to Close Bond Spreads: Marcus Ashworth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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