EXPLAINED: How are Italy’s prime ministers chosen?

EXPLAINED: How are Italy's prime ministers chosen?
The Quirinale Presidential Palace in central Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP
Following the resignation of Giuseppe Conte last week, Italy may soon have a new prime minister. But he wasn’t elected by voters, he has no political party, and he's not even a politician. Here's what's going on.

In the whirlwind of Italian politics, prime ministers come and go with dizzying frequency – on average about once every 14 months over the last 75 years.

And the process by which they are chosen can seem more than a little confusing – particularly for non-Italians, who may be used to quite different political systems.

Mario Draghi, an economist and the former president of the European Central Bank, was tasked on Wednesday with forming a government after weeks of squabbling within Italy's ruling parties.

But this doesn’t mean he’s got the top job just yet.

PROFILE: Could 'Super Mario' Draghi lead Italy out of its crisis?

Under Italy’s rules, the prime minister is appointed by the president of the Republic, and must then win the confidence of parliament to stay in office.

The job itself is formally called President of the Council of Ministers (Presidente del Consiglio dei Ministri), rather than Prime Minister.

The president usually makes this appointment after a general election, but it can also happen after a government collapses – which is not an unusual occurrence in Italian politics.

This time, President Mattarella asked Draghi to take over and form a government after Conte resigned amid a political crisis, and talks between ruling parties on forming a new government between themselves ended in failure.

After that, Mattarella had two options left: appointing a new prime minister himself, or call snap elections.

However he has effectively ruled out the possibility of elections due to the pandemic.

So is Draghi the new prime minister or not?

Draghi will not be formally nominated as prime minister until he can secure a majority in parliament – and until then, Conte's government remains in a caretaker position.

Draghi is on Thursday meeting with party leaders to discuss forming a new government.

Mario Draghi  gives a press conference after at the Quirinal palace in Rome on Wenesday. Photo: AFP

“The immediate challenge for Draghi, who is no political novice, is to secure a majority in a parliament where there is a deep unease towards 'technocratic solutions',” noted Wolfango Piccoli of political consultancy Teneo.

“At present, it is far from clear if a majority in parliament would be willing to support Draghi as prime minister.”

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Draghi, like Conte, is not a politician and does not have a political party behind him.

But this is nothing new in Italy, where the job has not always been left to politicians.

Italy’s multi-party system, featuring a large number of smaller parties, means governments are often in coalition form.

These may consist of several parties of various sizes, often with opposing views and conflicting political agendas.

This means that even the initial tasks of agreeing to form a government and naming cabinet ministers can be a long, drawn-out affair rife with squabbling.

Choosing a prime minister, then, is often a particular bone of contention between parties.

Conte himself was an outsider chosen as a compromise candidate when two opposing parties – the Five Star Movement and the League – formed an uneasy and short-lived coalition government in 2018.

Giuseppe Conte in 2018, flanked by two deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, under the previous coalition government. Photo: AFP

An unknown law professor not affiliated with any party, Conte went on to head a second coalition government, and his profile rose at home and abroad due to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

But he was far from the first non-politician to lead an Itaian government.

Since the 1990s, it has become established practice to call on unelected outsiders at times of national crisis – so-called technocrats with particular expertise.

“Every 10 to 15 years we inevitably end up in the hands of technocrats,” said Lorenzo Castellani, a political scientist from Rome's Luiss University.

READ ALSO: Why do Italy's governments collapse so often?

Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, a former central banker like Draghi, was Italy's first technocratic premier in 1993, leading a cabinet of experts that also featured a few professional politicians.

At the time, the country was gripped by the “Clean Hands” nationwide corruption scandal, which was wiping out the political parties that had ruled since World War II.

Ciampi was eventually replaced by Silvio Berlusconi after the media mogul won his first general election in 1994.

National unity?

Draghi is however most often compared by media commentators to Mario Monti – the last person to form a “government of national unity”, as Draghi is now being asked to do, to see Italy through a major crisis.

Monti, an economics professor and former EU commissioner, led the most recent technocratic government, from late 2011 to mid-2013.

He had perhaps the hardest task of all, picking up the reins of government as Italy's near bankruptcy risked bringing down the entire eurozone.

Monti introduced painful austerity measures, and despite that, he was initially popular.

His ensuing political career was a failure, as the centrist party he founded to run in the 2013 general elections flopped.

Draghi's task is expected to be two-fold: drag Italy out of the coronavirus pandemic, and revive its battered economy with the help of EU money due under the Recovery Fund.

Unlike Monti, “instead of having to impose austerity policies… he will have a lot of money to hand out,” said Daniele Albertazzi, a reader in politics at the University of Birmingham.

Nevertheless, even if Draghi is currently seen as a “saviour”, the public mood could quickly turn against him, Albertazzi said, citing Monti's precedent.

“We go from putting people on a pedestal to wanting to throw stones at them in just a few months.”


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