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PROFILE: How Italy’s Draghi went from ‘Super Mario’ to fallen prime minister

Mario Draghi, credited with helping save the eurozone as head of the European Central Bank, presided over a remarkable period of unity as Italy's premier before falling foul of its notoriously unstable political system.

Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi holds a press conference at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels on June 24, 2022.
Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi holds a press conference at a European Union leaders summit in Brussels on June 24, 2022. Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP.

The star economist was never directly elected but won the backing of almost all political parties when he took office in February 2021 and raised Italy’s profile on the international stage as a respected leader in the European Union and G7.

He was tasked with handling the coronavirus pandemic and the aftermath of recession, as well as overseeing plans to use an unprecedented EU recovery fund worth billions of euros to boost growth in the country.

TIMELINE: What happens next in Italy’s government crisis?

Enjoying soaring personal popularity and the trust of Brussels and the financial markets, Draghi was seen as the best choice to revive a stagnant economy, plagued by structural inefficiencies and a punishing bureaucracy, by ushering in structural reforms long delayed by infighting and inertia.

But with elections scheduled for next year, the parties in his coalition grew increasingly restive and Draghi’s stern warnings to stop political games went unheeded.

Three parties in his coalition on Wednesday refused to participate in a confidence vote, pulling the plug on the government.

Draghi handed in his resignation to Italy’s President Sergio Mattarella Thursday morning.

Italy's outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi after addressing the Senate on July 20th in a last attempt to resolve the government crisis.
Italy’s outgoing Prime Minister Mario Draghi after addressing the Senate on July 20th in a last attempt to resolve the government crisis. Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

Basketball and banking

Born in Rome on September 3, 1947 in a well-off family, Draghi lost both parents in his mid-teens, leaving him to care for two younger siblings.

As a young man he was never a rebel, even if he sympathised with the 1968 protest movement. “My hair was quite long, but not very long,” he told German magazine Die Zeit in 2015.

Draghi was educated in a Jesuit-run elite high school where he excelled in maths, Latin and basketball, and shared lessons with the likes of former Ferrari boss Luca Cordero di Montezemolo.

Draghi, who is married with two children, remains a practising Catholic.

In 1970, Draghi graduated in economics, with a thesis that argued the single currency “was a folly, something that should absolutely not be done” – a view that later evolved, as he became one of the euro’s strongest supporters.

He earned a PhD from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the United States, and taught economics in several Italian universities.

After spending six years at the World Bank from 1984 to 1990, he led the treasury department at the Italian economy ministry for a decade, working under nine separate governments.

From that position, Draghi masterminded large-scale privatisations and contributed to deficit-cutting efforts that helped Italy qualify for the euro.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi speaks during a ministerial meeting at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the OECD headquarters in Paris on June 9, 2022.
Draghi speaks during a ministerial meeting at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) at the OECD headquarters in Paris on June 9, 2022. Photo by STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN / AFP.

No ‘lame compromises’

In 2002, Draghi joined the management of Goldman Sachs, before being tapped three years later to lead the Bank of Italy after a scandal involving its former head, Antonio Fazio.

He was named to head the European Central Bank (ECB) in November 2011 when a near-bankruptcy situation in Italy risked triggering the collapse of the entire eurozone.

A year later, Draghi changed history by pledging to do “whatever it takes to preserve the euro”, adding: “And believe me, it will be enough.”

He was credited with helping save the single currency. However, that rescue came only with help from hefty cash injections and historic low interest rates – earning him the ire of conservatives, especially in Germany.

People who saw “Super Mario” at work at the ECB say he was a skilful negotiator with sharp political antennas, and ready to play “bad cop” to sway decisions in his favour, a former aide told AFP.

Draghi is someone who does not accept “lame compromises” for the sake of maintaining consensus, the aide said.

After leaving the ECB in 2019, Draghi laid low and spent most of Italy’s coronavirus lockdown period in his country house in central Umbria.

He was called in to lead Italy by President Sergio Mattarella, after the previous government of Giuseppe Conte collapsed into in-fighting in January 2021.

He had been tipped to succeed Mattarella during presidential elections in parliament earlier this year, but in the end Mattarella was called back for a second term after lawmakers failed to agree on anyone else.

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POLITICS

Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter ‘defamation’ trial

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Tuesday she will not withdraw her defamation suit against anti-mafia reporter Roberto Saviano, despite growing criticism that her position of power might skew the trial in her favour.

Italian PM Meloni refuses to back down on reporter 'defamation' trial

On Tuesday, the hard-right leader told Italian daily Corriere della Sera that she was confident the case would be treated with the necessary “impartiality”.

Meloni sued anti-mafia reporter Saviano for alleged defamation after he called her a “bastard” in a 2020 televised outburst over her attitude towards vulnerable migrants.

Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party was in opposition at the time, but took office last month after an electoral campaign that promised to stop migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa.

Press freedom watchdogs and supporters of Saviano have called for the trial, which opened earlier in November, to be scrapped.

READ ALSO: Anti-mafia reporter on trial for ‘defaming’ Italy’s far-right PM

“I don’t understand the request to withdraw the complaint on the pretext that I am now prime minister,” Meloni said.

“I believe that all this will be treated with impartiality, considering the separation of powers.”

She also added: “I am simply asking the court where the line is between the legitimate right to criticise, gratuitous insult and defamation.”

Saviano, best known for his international mafia bestseller “Gomorrah”, faces up to three years in prison if convicted.

The case dates back to December 2020 when Saviano was asked on a political TV chat show for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea in a shipwreck.

On the occasion, he railed at Meloni, who in 2019 had said that charity vessels which rescue migrants “should be sunk”.

Saviano is not the only journalist Meloni is taking to trial. One of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, Emiliano Fittipaldi, said last week the prime minister had sued him for defamation.

READ ALSO: Italian PM Meloni takes another investigative reporter to court

That trial is set to start in 2024.

Watchdogs say such trials are symbolic of a culture in Italy in which public figures intimidate reporters with repeated lawsuits, threatening the erosion of a free press.

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