Instability may follow if the country’s technocrat prime minister leaves his post to become the next president. But sooner or later democracy must be resumed

Last modified on Sun 9 Jan 2022 14.57 EST

No Italian has ever voted for Mario Draghi in an election, but given the opportunity it seems that many might choose to do so. Recent polls indicate that Italy’s technocrat prime minister, appointed last February by the country’s president, Sergio Mattarella, basks in stellar approval ratings of about 65%. As honeymoon periods go, this one has justified the “Super Mario” hype that accompanied Mr Draghi’s installation.

The explanation for his success lies in the unaccustomed sense of stability and calm that the former head of the European Central Bank has delivered. Since taking office, following the mid-Covid implosion of a centre-left coalition government, Mr Draghi has presided with authority over a unity administration that involves every party apart from the far-right Brothers of Italy. Rome’s Covid recovery plan is being enthusiastically funded by the European Commission, whose officials see the prime minister as a safe pair of hands, and Italy’s handling of the pandemic on Mr Draghi’s watch has been assured. In comparison to France, where far-right demagoguery is setting the tone in the presidential race, or Britain, where the public has been scandalised by the behaviour in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street, Italian politics has distinguished itself in 2021 by being reassuringly, unusually dull.

One way or another, however, this novel interlude is coming to an end. A general election is not due until 2023, but by the end of the month a new Italian president must be installed by MPs and senators – Mr Mattarella having come to the end of his seven-year term. Silvio Berlusconi, at the age of 85, is angling for the largely ceremonial job, but Mr Draghi has emerged as the clear favourite and seems interested. His departure would severely weaken the authority of the government and increase the likelihood of early elections, which the populist right would be favourites to win. For that reason, many on the centre-left want the prime minister to stay where he is for as long as possible.

So should Mr Draghi stay as PM or go to become president? The febrile speculation surrounding this question suggests that Italy, and in particular the centre-left, has become unhealthily Draghi-dependent. The Covid emergency – coinciding with a chaotic parliament in which two unstable coalitions fell apart – justified a suspension of normal politics and Mr Draghi has used the time well. His banking career and international reputation have lent Italy a new respectability in the financial markets and greater influence within the EU. There is also little doubt that the advent of a new, aggressively nationalist, rightwing government would be disastrous for Italy’s fledgling recovery and its new status in Brussels. But Mr Draghi, however accomplished and formidable an operator, should not be viewed as the primary bulwark against such a possibility.

The polarisation that has characterised the country’s politics over the past decade, leading to the rise of blowhard rightwing figures such as Matteo Salvini and the Brothers of Italy leader Giorgia Meloni, can only ultimately be resolved via the ballot box. The centre-left Democratic party did well in local elections during the autumn, profiting from alliances with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. For a proper revival of the Italian left, it now needs to find a way to build on those successes, extending its reach beyond the urban professionals who form the bedrock of its support. That task has become urgent because, after a successful pause for which Mr Draghi deserves much credit, traditional politics is set to make a comeback in Italy.

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