Opinion | Italy’s Populists Join the Establishment

Mario Draghi speaks in Washington, Oct. 14, 2017.


jim watson/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Italy, like the U.S., recently completed an experiment in populist government. The antiestablishment Five Star Movement and the anti-immigration League formed a coalition after elections in 2018, but it broke down after little more than a year. As in America, the new head of government is an establishment figure. But unlike President Biden, Prime Minister

Mario Draghi

is known less as a politician than a technocrat: an economist with a doctorate from MIT who has headed the Italian Treasury, Bank of Italy and European Central Bank. He stays off social media and seldom gives interviews or public speeches.

“When I was prime minister, Mario Draghi was director general of the Treasury. I know him personally and professionally,”

Lamberto Dini

told me. He led the government in 1995-96, “He is very reserved. He would call only when there was a problem to solve, and he would solve it. He is not just a technocrat; he is a great political figure.”

Mr. Draghi, 73, is best known for rescuing the euro during its debt crisis in 2012. He promised in a speech that the ECB would do “whatever it takes” to salvage the eurozone, which stopped international speculation against the currency.

This month President

Sergio Mattarella

appointed Mr. Draghi to head a national-unity government. Unlike in the U.S., there was no populist backlash against the new establishmentarian leader. Instead, the antiestablishment Five Star Movement and League were so eager to join the new cabinet that they abandoned their former euroskeptic positions. The coalition also includes the center-left Democratic Party, the free-market Forza Italia, and the democratic-socialist Free and Equal party. The only opposition party is the right-wing Brothers of Italy.

The unelected Mr. Draghi is popular with voters. According to a survey by

Noto Sondaggi,

a leading Italian pollster, 56% of Italians have confidence in him—the highest figure recorded in two decades. Markets seem to share the feeling: Benchmark Italian bond yields hit record lows after the appointment.

Holding together a diverse coalition will be a challenge for the new prime minister. For starters, he reappointed Five Star’s

Luigi Di Maio

as foreign minister. Mr. Di Maio’s party opened Italy to the Chinese Communist Party by signing on to the Belt and Road Initiative. Mr. Draghi is committed to Italy’s alliance with the U.S. and will need to persuade the Five Star Movement to change course.

In a country where Covid hit especially hard, Mr. Draghi will also manage a relief program bigger than the Marshall Plan—$240 billion from the European Union’s Recovery Fund. He oversaw the ECB’s quantitative easing after the 2008 financial crisis, and he’s appointed members of the League to key economics ministries, a signal that he plans to increase productivity by reducing taxes and reforming inefficient bureaucracies. Spending will be carefully directed to businesses that have prospects of succeeding and to the unemployed.

“It looks like we reached a compromise,”

Giovanni Orsina,

a historian and dean at Rome’s LUISS University told me. “The electorate voted for antiestablishment parties, but they lacked the competencies to lead.” Italy will find out if a trusted leader can satisfy popular discontent by combining expertise with disparate populist visions.

Ms. Bocchi is the Journal’s Joseph Rago Memorial Fellow.

Journal Editorial Report: Paul Gigot interviews economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin. Image: Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

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Appeared in the February 25, 2021, print edition.

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