Italian heavyweights rally behind former bank chief Mario Draghi to head up next government, which will have the job of allocating more than $240 billion in EU funds to relaunch the country’s pandemic-ravaged economy.
Former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi has wrapped up the first round of talks aimed at forming a new Italian government, hoping to drag the country out of its economic and Covid-19 crises.
Draghi, who held the first phase of talks on Saturday, was summoned by President Sergio Mattarella this week after prime minister Giuseppe Conte's coalition collapsed, Draghi — dubbed "Super Mario" for extricating the eurozone from its debt crisis early last decade — has already rallied some political players behind him.
So far the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) and the small Italia Viva outfit of centrist former premier Matteo Renzi — the man behind the collapse of the last government — have promised support, as well as Silvio Berlusconi's centre-right Forza Italia (FI).
On Saturday, right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini – one of two heavyweight anti-establishment parties alongside the Five Star Movement (M5S) – signalled its readiness for the economist to form Italy's 67th government since World War II.
"We stand ready. We are the biggest political force in the country, we are a force that should be in government... unlike some, we don't think we can get ahead by always saying no," Salvini said after meeting Draghi.
"I prefer to be on the inside and in control," he said.
While he did not reveal any conditions for joining a government, the former interior minister said his final decision would come after a second round of talks next week.
Draghi work on pandemic recovery funds
Time is ticking as Italy must present plans for how it will spend around 200 billion euros ($241 billion) from the EU's pandemic recovery fund — the largest share for any single country — by the end of April.
Draghi "already has the confidence of Europe and the markets. Soon he will receive parliament's confidence," daily Corriere della Sera predicted.
Wolfgango Piccoli of consulting firm Teneo agreed.
"The question has somewhat shifted from 'if' Draghi could form a government to 'how' this government will be constituted, meaning which parties will be part of the coalition."
Boasting the largest numbers of MPs, the decisive answers will come from the League and the anti-establishment M5S.
With its roughly one-third of MPs and senators, M5S had backed Conte to the hilt.
But saying he had always worked "for the good of the country," Conte on Thursday promised not to be an "obstacle" to Draghi and wished him "good luck!"
The League will have to overcome its reluctance to work with the PD and possible reservations about Draghi personally.
The former central banker personifies a European elite that the nationalist, anti-immigration party and its counterparts across the bloc love to hate.
But League leader Salvini, who served under Conte as interior minister from 2018-19, said he would be ready to return to the cabinet table.
He appears likely to push through backing a Draghi-led government even at the risk of grumbling in his party ranks.
Draghi will meet civil society groups like unions on Monday before tackling the parties again later next week.
While the wrangling goes on, the European Union's third-largest economy is ailing from the effects of coronavirus after shrinking 8.9 percent last year – one of the sharpest drops in the eurozone single-currency area.
A harsh lockdown in March and April brought activity to a near-standstill after Italy became the first European nation to suffer a coronavirus wave.
So far Italy has recorded more than 90,000 Covid-19 deaths — the second-highest toll after Britain — and 2.6 million cases.
The more contagious British coronavirus variant has also been detected in some people testing positive.
If Draghi fails to secure a parliamentary majority or loses MPs' backing after taking office, Italy could hold early elections.
But Mattarella, who would make such a call, said on Tuesday that he wanted to avoid going to the polls while the country suffers through its health and economic shocks.