On July 14, 2022, Italy’s adolescent “national unity” government narrowly escaped complete collapse. Prime Minister (PM) Mario Draghi’s dramatic resignation ended in tentative when he heeded President Sergio Mattarella’s plea to remain in office. Yet, this crisis revealed hidden weaknesses in Italy’s democracy: its dependence on Draghi, an unelected official, has the potential to reshape its democratic trajectory.
To understand the current crisis, and why it’s no surprise Draghi’s government faces imminent collapse, one must understand Mario Draghi’s story. A former banker, he assumed power in 2021, when President Mattarella nominated him for Italy’s PM following the previous government’s breakdown. Draghi vowed to rescue Italy from twin economic and public health crises—namely, the pandemic and all its devastating effects. Draghi formed a new “national unity government” and, importantly, conditioned his power, vowing only to lead the new coalition if its many different parties could cooperate.
On July 14th, former PM Giuseppe Conte, leader of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, tested that promise. Contesting the possible construction of a garbage incinerator in Rome, Conte walked out of the government instead of compromising. Draghi, in the face of such disunity, promptly resigned.
Such dramatic political upheaval, triggered by the seemingly minor issue of a garbage incinerator, suggests Italy’s democracy was never as stable as it appeared. Conte and the opposition blame Draghi much of Italy’s democratic weakening: although the country enjoyed stability and even growth under Draghi, opponents contested his legitimacy from the start. A former banker, he took leadership with naught but a presidential nomination. President Mattarella bypassed elections because of the pandemic’s urgency and Italy’s flagging economy—but did this urgency truly justify such a breach of democracy? Although “democracy” varies widely in theory and practice, most versions align with Terry Lyn Karl and Philippe Schmitter’s basic definition. They emphasize the necessity of elected representatives, arguing that democratic leaders must be held accountable through the threat of elections in order to have legitimacy. Following this strict view of democracy, Italy’s democratic weakening began when Draghi stepped into power, rather than when he resigned.
Additionally, scholars Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt would likely have advised President Mattarella not to bring a political outsider into mainstream politics. They warn elected leaders against attempting to harness the charisma of outsiders, arguing that this can give rise to demagogues who ultimately try to keep their legitimately obtained power through undemocratic ways. Draghi certainly has charisma: dubbed “Super Mario” for his salvaging of the euro, he enjoys widespread public admiration. But now, Draghi’s opponents call for an immediate return to elections, emphasizing Draghi’s technically undemocratic, unelected, outsider status.
Did Draghi indeed weaken Italy’s democracy? To determine whether his resignation could benefit Italy, one must examine both Draghi’s mandate and his subsequent use of power.
Draghi’s explicit charge was to rebuild Italy’s government. After Conte resigned in 2021—ironically, the catalyst of today’s crisis—, the parliament collapsed. Draghi attempted to form a stronger, more representative coalition…one based on “national unity.” Whether he succeed is debatable: critics note that, although the coalition included nearly every major Italian party, it reserved important roles for the most neoliberal figures and represented labor not at all. However, Draghi used the broad support for both his leadership and his coalition to revive Italy’s economy and its parliament, lifting the country from the depths of the pandemic. And crucially, he kept his promise to resign if he lost his majority support. By any analysis, his resignation adheres to democratic norms of accountability.
Less explicitly but just as importantly, President Mattarella selected Draghi as PM to obtain vital European Union (EU) recovery funds. His international reputation as “Super Mario” and expertise helped secure about $240 billion in USD for Italy, which would allow Italy to modernize.
But how did Draghi [MCJ1] secure these funds? One important component of his plan was reforming the judicial system. An unelected technocrat changing the judiciary seems inherently concerning. Ozan Varol’s concept of stealth authoritarianism clearly outlines ways for an incumbent to manipulate systems like judicial review, shrouding undemocratic actions with ostensible legitimacy. Through the judiciary, authoritarians can consolidate regime power while maintaining a facade of judicial autonomy. However, Draghi’s reforms allowed the courts to become more efficient without changing the balance of power between the judiciary and other government branches. For instance, he reduced burdens on the judges by introducing clerkship. The EU had made these reforms a condition for granting Italy funds. Thus, Draghi was operating under the oversight of an international body committed to the rule of law.
Taken together, Draghi’s policies appear more democratic than his unelected-outsider status would suggest. This discrepancy reveals Italy’s true weakness: not Draghi himself, but rather that it took an unelected technocrat to institute these needed changes. As Foreign Policy journalist Anna Momigliano writes, bringing in technocrats to solve political and economic crises–a strategy that the Italian government historically relies on–has lasting impacts on its democracy. Beyond placing the public at the mercy of possibly ill-intentioned technocrats, it weakens the legitimacy of elected officials, rendering them ineffective and untrustworthy to the public eye. And without public trust in elections and the officials they put in power, a democracy cannot function.
Thus, Italy’s current turmoil is not the beginning of its democratic breakdown, but the continuation–and perhaps climax. Draghi’s coalition appears permanently dismantled regardless of whether he withdraws his resignation. Following Five Star’s lead, more parties have openly called the “national unity” Parliament illegitimate, including the nationalist League party and the far-right Brothers of Italy. Both advocate a return to elections, playing up Draghi’s unrepresentative status. Returning to Varol’s concept of stealth authoritarianism, this sudden call for a “return to democracy” at the onset of a new power vacuum looks highly suspicious. The opposition’s insistence on democratic norms transfers legitimacy from Draghi to their parties and candidates. By holding and winning elections, the opposition could then mask any of their own undemocratic actions behind having a popular mandate that Draghi did not.
Perhaps the simple solution, then, is for Draghi to rescind his resignation at President Mattarella’s request. In some ways, his role in the government is imperative for both Italy’s democracy and Europe’s at large. Draghi played a crucial part strengthening EU unity: he thrust Italy into the Western mainstream against Russia, despite traditional commercial ties between the two countries, and helped bring Ukraine closer to the EU. Draghi’s resignation may then weaken the EU.
The larger picture suggests Italy needs Draghi as a safeguard of democracy—and EU strength. But the fact remains that Italy is now dependent on an unelected representative. Although Draghi benefitted Italy, his status inherently weakens Italy’s democracy…and leading a unity parliament without unity, against his own promises, would only continue to damage the people’s view of their government. And, furthermore, if Italy continues to rely on technocrats to led them out of political crises, there are greater opportunities for demagogues to enter the political arena. What Italy needs, in the long run, is indeed a return to elections. One can only hope they elect someone as committed to democracy as Draghi.
Hi Eva! This is a fascinating look into the complex political situation occurring in Italy. You provide very interesting insight into how an undemocratic practice actually led to some pretty significant positive changes in the country, but how it also has the potential to be setting a dangerous precedent. One of your main points is that Italy is now dependent on Draghi, but I wonder if this is actually the case. As you noted, Italy has a long history of relying on technocrats to resolve its issues, and it is clear that Draghi has continued the trend. However, given that Draghi resigned according to the promise he made when initially nominated, the effect on public trust in the government if he were to stay – especially when he wasn’t elected in the first place – could be detrimental. I feel that it is imperative that Draghi does not rescind his resignation. That being said, the next steps are complicated. In your final paragraph, you asserted that Italy’s one true need is a return to elections. This is certainly a valid point in theory, and I would make the same suggestion, but unfortunately the situation is more complicated in practice. As we have learned, elections are not guaranteed to promote democracy. There have been a concerning number of instances wherein a nation held a free and fair election that ended up contributing to democratic backsliding. Italy’s aforementioned reliance on technocrats has, as you noted, already decreased the public’s perception of the legitimacy of elected officials. So, Italy is now in a situation where the democratically elected officials have lost legitimacy and the undemocratically nominated Prime Minister had broad public support. Despite this, for the sake of adhering to democratic practices, I agree that Italy should return to elections. With any luck, the next democratically elected Prime Minister will continue Draghi’s good work and reestablish the Italian public’s trust in elected officials.