During a visit to Ferrara on Sunday the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano has lauded the work of Central Bank governor Mario Draghi in a manner which some have interpreted as an endorsement of Draghi as the next prime minister. The president unexpectedly praised the good sense of judgement shown by the head of the Bank of Italy. Napolitano’s comments come at a time when many foresee that the government of current prime minister Romano Prodi will not survive a crucial vote on the budget later this year.
Prodi’s center-left government is struggling in opinion polls and has recently been hit by private judicial worries of justice minister Clemente Mastella and a large demonstration organized by left-wing members of the government against current economic and social policy. The looming budget vote may well bring an end to Prodi’s time in office as some members of the coalition have expressed their dissatisfaction with the budget plan that they informally agreed upon in the summer. Since the ruling coalition only holds a one-seat majority in the Senate, even marginal disagreements within the coalition can block the government.
Given the fragility of the present constellation, rumours about what Napolitano would do in case of a government defeat on the budget, have become the preferred subject of political commentators. The Italian president has usually been viewed as someone who would hesitate to call new elections. He is unlikely to ask Prodi to resign before the prime minister has formally lost a vote of no confidence in parliament. In this case, a new government would need to be formed but new elections would not be inevitable. The institutional mechanism foreseen after a successful vote of no confidence is for the president to invite all parliamentary groups to consult at the president’s Quirinal palace. Only if the majority of the parties present were to ask for a dissolution of parliament could the president call for new elections. Thus, there are still a few obstacles on the way towards fresh general elections and opinions vary on whether a so-called “institutional government” headed by a widely-respected non-partisan figure could step in after Prodi’s departure.
In this context, Napolitano’s praise of Draghi, a highly esteemed economist with a non-political career, was absorbed with great curiosity. The appointment of a “technocrat” would not be unprecedented in modern Italian history. During the 1990s, Carlo Azelio Ciampi switched from the Bank of Italy to the post of prime minister and his time in office was generally seen as a stabilizing period for the Italian political system. Nonetheless, it is unclear how Draghi would fit into the present institutional and parliamentary framework. Napolitano has stressed on various occasions that Italy urgently needs to embrace political (in particular electoral) reform. Thus, it is not obvious why a politically-inexperienced economist would be a suitable choice as prime minister in the current situation. Furthermore, there is no reason to assume that Draghi would find it easier than Prodi to mould a functioning coalition. He would have to ask for the support of either some opposition party or, like Prodi, the far-left. The opposition has already made clear that it wants fresh elections and the communist left would be an odd ally for a mainstream economist like Draghi. In the end, should Prodi fall, the most logical solution is to go to the ballot box.