When Draghi's realism clashes with Salvini's populism

Mario Draghi

After a rather placid summer on the whole, the start of the political year has brought the first open confrontation between Prime Minister Draghi and the second most important party of the "maggioranza" that supports the current government, which is none other than Matteo Salvini's Lega. The fact is that when the current government took to Parliament the approval of the so-called "green-pass", which all citizens must use to gain access to different establishments (restaurants, cinemas, etc.), it found that Salvini's party voted "no" and therefore did not pass the first stage, which was the lower house. In relation to this, it seems clear that this is a last-minute decision by the always controversial politician from Lombardy, since a few days earlier he had withdrawn all the amendments tabled against the aforementioned "green-pass", in order to vote "yes" to those tabled by his real rival, the Roman Meloni, leader of Brothers of Italy.

What is clear is that the realism that marks the management of a man like Draghi, rigorous to the maximum in the fulfilment of the stability of public accounts, collides, and in what a way, with the populism that has characterised Salvini's leadership for years at the head of the historic party founded by Umberto Bossi. Draghi considers both compulsory vaccination for all his fellow citizens and the implementation of the "green-pass" to be necessary, as he considers it essential to reactivate domestic consumption with the aim of recovering as soon as possible the GDP lost during the year 2020. And he does not want to risk what happened eleven months ago, when the number of infections increased exponentially after a fairly controlled summer: the huge number of positive cases of the coronavirus that occurred throughout last October forced a rapid "lockdown" that in part ended up leading to the fall of the previous government.

This is certainly not the first disagreement between Draghi and Salvini: the latter has already tried before to dismiss both the head of health (Speranza) and interior (Lamorghese), but in both cases he has been met with a resounding "no" from the former. On the other hand, Salvini knows that the "citizenship income", approved with the votes of his party during the so-called "Government of Change" (June 2018-September 2019), has its hours numbered, and he is already suggesting that he will give his support to whatever the "premier" decides simply because this "citizenship income", in the words of the Lega leader, "does not work". But the "citizenship income", after all, was not his initiative, but that of the Five Star Movement, which he had to accept in order to end up forming a coalition that made him deputy prime minister and interior minister. On the other hand, compulsory vaccination and the "green-pass" has many of his voters revolted, and this has led Salvini to stand up, inflicting his first parliamentary defeat on Draghi.

In any case, Salvini must tread carefully in questioning Draghi's policies, given that the Five Star Movement, which is becoming a centre-left and environmentalist party that is also twinning with the Democratic Party (PD), continues to be the party with the largest number of senators: it has almost half of those needed by the current government to be able to continue legislating. If we add to this part of the centre-right plus other parties such as Renzi's Italia Viva, Draghi could end up taking the Lega out of the "maggioranza" and, despite this, have enough votes to go ahead. Draghi would then have to be very careful about liquidating the "citizens' income", as he would then also lose the support of the Cinque Stelle: without the "pentastellini" and the Lega, there would not be enough MPs to keep his government in place, and all this with a year and a half of legislature still to go before new general elections are called.

It remains to be seen how the president of the Council of Ministers will handle Salvini's rebellious attitude, which probably has a lot to do with the proximity of the "administrative" elections (4 October). Draghi is a man with a great deal of gumption and a left hand, but he is also a very decisive person who is accustomed to not wasting time with sterile debates. In his favour is the fact that the economy is on a roll: the 2.7% GDP gain in the second quarter of the year, a figure that has already been confirmed, is not only a very good figure but, among the main European economies, it places it only below Spain, which has added a tenth of a point more, although we must remember that it lost 2 points more than neighbouring Italy in 2020, so it has much more room for growth. 

Now it is time to see what happens with the so-called "Cartabia Law" or justice reform: it was passed before the summer in the Lower House, but now it must be approved by the Senate, where the votes of Salvini's party are very important, given that Cinque Stelle does not like this law, as it completely overturns the law promoted at the time by the previous Minister of Justice, the Sicilian Alfonso Bonafede, a prominent member of Cinque Stelle. The Lega has already voted in favour in the Lower House, so it is to be expected that it will do the same in the Upper House. But it is equally true that this reform does not affect Salvini's populism, which is focused on other more sensitive issues such as irregular immigration.

What is clear is that Salvini cemented his party's growth not only on populism but also on ultra-nationalism, and now in power is a Draghi who is as realist as he is pro-European. As the economy moves forward, we may find that a country with a strongly polarised vote in the March 2018 elections (the two most radical parties in their approaches, which were none other than the Lega and Five Stars, together accounted for around 50% of the votes) will redirect its preferences towards parties located in a more temperate zone and which were precisely the most battered in the last general elections: the clearest case is the PD, then led by Matteo Renzi, which, despite being the second most voted party, entered a phase of strong internal crisis that has not yet been resolved, including two splits, such as Italia Viva and Azione. 

Everything indicates that there will end up being a "tratativa" between Draghi and Salvini, but also that Draghi does not intend to swallow "quina" with the Lega leader's decisions. It should not be forgotten that the current prime minister, a figure of the highest international prestige, agreed to be president of the Council of Ministers on the basis of having broad parliamentary support, and therefore does not intend to negotiate point by point everything he has undertaken to do. Of course, Salvini, even when he wants to, can be flexible: let's not forget that, after numerous tug-of-war with the European Union over the General State Budget for 2019, he ended up accepting that the deficit target would remain at 2.04 when he had said actively and passively that it would not move from the initial 2.4. In this sense, what happens with the Five Star Movement will be key: if it manages to enter a phase of stability that it has not known since the summer of 2018, then it may be Salvini who starts to get into difficulties. But the truth is that it has taken Salvini only half a year to confront the current "maggioranza" and the Draghi government. Will it be the first of new and important confrontations between the two? Time will tell.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021 (Madrid, Sílex Ediciones, 2021)