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Crisis-hit Italy turns to former European bank chief Draghi

  • Mattarella called in Draghi after Italy's ruling parties failed to agree on a new government following a split last month that forced Giuseppe Conte to resign.
03 Feb 2021

ROME: Italy's president is expected Wednesday to ask Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank, to lead the country out of the devastating coronavirus pandemic after the coalition government collapsed.

President Sergio Mattarella called in Draghi after Italy's ruling parties failed to agree on a new government following a split last month that forced Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte to resign.

Draghi, an Italian economist credited with saving the eurozone at the height of the debt crisis in 2012, is expected to try to put together a government of national unity to navigate the still-raging pandemic.

More than 89,000 people have died since Covid-19 swept across Italy one year ago, while restrictions and the collapse of tourism have plunged the economy into recession.

Meanwhile, the government has only a few weeks to come up with a credible plan to spend more than 200 billion euros ($240 billion) in European Union recovery funds.

Conte's centre-left coalition had been in power since September 2019 but was fatally weakened last month when former premier Matteo Renzi withdrew his Italia Viva party in a row over the handling of the pandemic.

Conte finally resigned last week, but hoped to return with a new government comprising the populist Five Star Movement (M5S) and the centre-left Democratic Party (DP).

Mattarella gave them until Tuesday to patch things up with Renzi, but the deadline came and went -- leaving the president with what he said were only two viable options.

He ruled out snap elections because of the pandemic, and instead said he would help form a "high-profile government that should not identify itself with any political formula".

Draghi, dubbed "Super Mario" for his action calming the markets during his stint at the ECB during 2011 to 2019, had long been discussed as a potential saviour.

But still it came as a surprise, after Mattarella's office rejected reports at the weekend that he had been in touch with the economist.

"Draghi's moment," headlined La Republica daily, while the Milan stock market opened 2.3 percent higher on Wednesday.

Mattarella has stressed the urgency of creating a stable government to manage the pandemic, which hit Italy first among European nations.

Alongside the ever-mounting death toll, the economy shrank 8.9 percent in 2020 -- the biggest contraction since the end of World War II.

Conte had drawn up a 220-billion-euro recovery plan using the EU funds, but Renzi accused him of using it for vote-winning handouts, rather than addressing long-term structural issues.

The political instability in recent weeks had sparked concerns about whether Rome could meet the April deadline to submit its spending plans to Brussels.

"Thank you, President!" tweeted the EU's economy commissioner and former Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, after Mattarella announced his plans.

Lorenzo Castellani, a political expert at Rome's Luiss University, said he believed a Draghi-led government would be highly technocratic.

"The government programme will be 99 percent occupied by the pandemic and the recovery fund," he told AFP.

But the economist would still have to secure a majority of support among lawmakers, before submitting to a vote of confidence in parliament.

So far the PD appears on board, as does Renzi, but the M5S, the biggest party in parliament once defined by its euroscepticism, is split.

One of the M5S leaders, Vito Crimi, warned: "This type of executive has already been adopted in the past, with extremely negative consequences for Italian citizens."

The breakdown in talks between the ruling parties prompted a round of finger-pointing, particularly against "irresponsible" Renzi.

However, Renzi maintains he was only ever concerned about the issues. He tweeted his support Wednesday for Draghi, saying: "Now is the time for builders... zero controversy, long live Italy."

Conte was first appointed in 2018 at the helm of a government comprising M5S and Matteo Salvini's far-right League.

But when Salvini quit the following year, Conte created a new coalition with M5S, the PD and Renzi.