With Italy’s Draghi toppled, populists campaign in fast gear

ROME (AP) — The ink had barely dried on a presidential decree putting a premature end to the Italian Parliament’s term, but that didn’t keep Italy’s politicians from rushing into campaign mode Friday following the collapse of Premier Mario Draghi’s government.

Perhaps the quickest to spring into action was Matteo Salvini. The right-wing leader teamed up with former Premier Silvio Berlusconi this week to persuade the senators of their respective parties to desert a confidence vote that Draghi sought in a failed bid to revive his struggling 17-month-old governing coalition.

Salvini, who is keen on becoming premier, gave a state TV interview hours after President Sergio Mattarella accepted Draghi’s resignation and signed the decree dissolving Parliament, paving the way for an early election. Instead of the half-buttoned shirt and jeans or beach shorts he often favors, the League party leader wore a suit and tie and sat at a desk.

With the Italian flag conspicuous in the backdrop, Salvini said the League was “insisting” that Draghi’s now-caretaker government extend a 30-cent discount on gas pump prices and relief for gas and electricity bills. Draghi spearheaded that same strategy months ago and already had promised to extend the assistance.

Salvini, who during 15 months as Italy’s interior minister earned a reputation for cracking down on unauthorized migration, promised that if the right-wing triumphs in the Sept. 25 election, he’d declare blanket forgiveness for the “millions of TV viewers” owing back taxes.

He exulted that thanks to the League’s objections, a reform sought by the European Union to encourage more economic competition would be approved minus a provision to allow Uber-like businesses to operate in Italy. Thousands of taxi drivers went on strike for days this summer to protest the provision.

Media mogul Berlusconi said in an interview on one of his TV networks Friday that his Forza Italy party’s campaign platform includes a pledge to ensure pensions are “at least 1,000 euros (dollars) a month” with an extra month’s payment thrown in each year.

Giovanni Orsina, who directs the School of Government at Luiss university in Rome, observed that earlier this year, Draghi was considered a strong contender to be elected by Parliament as Italy’s president.

His coalition allies at the time told Draghi, “‘You stay and govern.’ Six months later, they kick him out” of the premier’s office, Orsina said while briefing foreign media on Italian politics.

Berlusconi himself had presidential ambitions, but Mattarella was elected to a second term in late January.

Berlusconi declared in Friday’s interview that his “conscience was at ease.” A top aide, Antonio Tajani, said the former premier, who is 85 and has a history of heart problems, is “fit as a cricket″ and would “surely” run for a Senate seat this year.

Berlusconi was obliged to surrender his Senate seat nearly a decade ago after a tax fraud conviction, but he is again eligible to hold public office.

The other coalition partner that ambushed Draghi by not participating in Wednesday’s confidence vote was the populist 5-Star Movement, which became the largest force in Parliament after the last election, held in 2018. But internal divisions reduced the ranks of its lawmakers as they squabbled over whether to keep supporting Draghi, including on providing Ukraine with more military aid.

The Movement’s betrayal of Draghi coupled with its own implosion poses a dilemma for the center-left Democratic Party, the only large coalition partner which backed him in Wednesday’s vote. Party leader Enrico Letta, also a former premier, had high hopes for a campaign alliance with the 5-Stars in time for next spring, when the next regular parliamentary was due to take place.

But the Movement’s abandoning Draghi “makes any alliance with the 5-Stars impossible,” a top Democrat, Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told Corriere della Sera.

The upcoming election “will substantially boil down to a challenge between who defended Draghi and who instead threw everything into the sea,” Franceschini said,

The coalition’s implosion came despite an unprecedented outpouring of sentiment by ordinary Italians appealing for Draghi to keep on governing, amid soaring inflation, high energy costs and a surge in pandemic infections.

Opinion polls show Letta’s Democrats and the far-right Brothers of Italy led by Giorgia Meloni poised to be the two top vote-getters. Meloni, whose nationalist party has neo-fascist roots, avoided the political fray by staying in the opposition. She staunchly backed the Draghi government’s support to help Ukraine defend its own sovereignty. Meloni is eager to be Italy’s next premier.

But the same opinion soundings have consistently found a good 40% of those surveyed undecided.

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