Despite winning a confidence vote, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said he would resign after the populist Five Star Movement, a coalition ally, pulled its support for the government.
In a roller-coaster day of politicking in Rome, Italian President Sergio Mattarella announced late Thursday that he would not accept the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who had just minutes earlier declared that he would step down amid political crisis.
What did Mattarella say?
A statement from Mattarella's office read that the president, "did not accept the resignation, and invited the prime minister to appear before parliament to make a statement."
Draghi survived a no-confidence vote in the Italian Senate earlier on Thursday, yet his government's future was thrown into question due to a boycott of the vote by the populist 5-Star Movement (5SM), a key coalition ally.
"I would like to inform you that tonight I will submit my resignation to the president of the republic," Draghi told Cabinet members at a special meeting after the parliamentary vote.
5SM parliamentarians refused to participate in Thursday's vote over opposition to parts of a €26 billion ($26 billion) relief bill for skyrocketing energy prices that the confidence vote had been linked to.
Draghi won the vote 172-39, but the 5SM boycott represented a clear threat to his government.
Draghi had clearly stated that 5SM was a coalition partner in his unity government and that he had no intention of governing without them.
Resignation of Italy's Prime Minister rejected by President: DW's Seema Gupta
What the president's move means
In rejecting Draghi's resignation, Mattarella has staved off, at least temporarily, total political crisis as Italy struggles with grave debt problems, severe drought and rising energy prices as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Draghi's support for Kyiv has been a driving force in splintering 5SM, with some members of the populist party remaining opposed to arming Ukraine. It was indeed this issue that prompted Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio to lead an exodus from 5SM, the party he once headed, saying now was the time to support, "European and Atlanticist values," and accusing party leader Conte of "weakening" Italy's international standing by opposing arms for Ukraine.
Now, Draghi, an independent, has been asked to speak with parliament to update members on the state of Italy's affairs in hopes that he may be able to assemble a new government. Should he be successful in that endeavor he would be required to seal the deal with another vote of confidence.
On paper, it would appear that he has enough support to do just that. Despite losing the backing of a shrinking 5SM, he would still have a majority if he were able to keep the remainder of his coalition together.
Draghi's main support will likely come from the Social Democrats and ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's Italy Alive party. The main opposition will likely continue to be the neo-fascist Brothers of Italy party. It is unclear whether the far-right League party of Matteo Salvini will remain on board, or join the Brothers in calling for early elections.
5SM's immediate future, too, would seem unclear, with observers speculating that Conte may well have overplayed his hand with such a risky move at a time when so much is at stake for the country and the wider EU.
5SM, shedding members and losing support, risks prompting political crisis
5SM has been rapidly shedding members and its leadership came under fire from across the political spectrum for its opposition to Thursday's bill, which would, among other things, allow Rome to build a garbage incinerator outside the city to deal with its massive refuse problems. Other elements of the legislation include a reduction of gas and diesel taxes, as well as utility bill relief for consumers.
Despite high-profile defections — like that of Foreign Minister di Maio, who left 5SM to form his own party — Conte refused to give in on the issue.
Other coalition members railed against Conte's stance during parliamentary debate. Liberal Senator Emma Bonino said being in government, "is not like picking up a menu and deciding, antipasti, no; gelato, yes."
Though 5SM was the largest winner in 2018 elections — hauling in 33% of the overall vote — the rancorous outfit has been fast-losing parliamentarians as well as public support and now polls around 11%. Observers say the party's stance regarding the incinerator and the Thursday vote were aimed to shore up voter support.
In terms of foreign policy and geopolitics, Draghi evolved into a key figure on the European political stage as Russia's invasion of Ukraine has turned up pressure on the bloc to act.
To run Draghi out of office now risked, "the destabilization of Europe," railed Antonio Saccone — an ally of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Saccone thundered against members of 5SM, saying, "You'd be doing [Russian President Vladimir] Putin a favor."
Domestically, Draghi's presence benefited Italy — the third-largest economy in the Eurozone — in the eyes of the European Union (EU) and the ECB, which tightened monetary policy toward Italy over its massive debt and political instability.
Draghi, a known quantity with a reputation for pragmatism not often seen in Italian politics, was largely regarded as a guarantor that Italy would abide by EU and ECB rules.
He was also able to push through some of the reforms the EU has said must be put in place before it provides €200 billion ($200 billion) in pandemic recovery assistance. Should he indeed leave the helm, that desperately needed assistance might not materialize.
Markets reacted skittishly to the Thursday vote, with shares falling and Italian bond yields rising significantly.
Observers fear that Draghi's departure from office could cast the country back into political uncertainty.
New elections for Italy sooner than later?
Italians were scheduled to head to the polls in early 2023 but Thursday's vote, Draghi's resignation and Mattarella's refusal to accept it may, nevertheless, change that.
Should Draghi fail to assemble a coalition, Mattarella could dissolve parliament and call for elections as early as September.
Though Draghi enjoyed the backing of a broad range of political parties and almost of the country's main players. There was one notable exception: The far-right Brothers of Italy party, which has been riding a wave of increasing popularity and is now polling at 22%. The Euroskeptic, nationalist party had previously demanded Mattarella dissolve the government and call new elections.
Draghi headed straight to President Mattarella's office at the Quirinal after the Thursday vote to chart a course for the next steps to be taken. After the hour-long meeting, Draghi's office announced that he had called a Cabinet meeting for Thursday evening.
Italian news agency ANSA reported that the 74-year-old did not offer his resignation and would use the Cabinet meeting to determine if and how to continue governing.
Shortly after the Cabinet meeting, however, Draghi's office released a statement saying the politician had informed members: "I will tender my resignation to the president of the republic this evening. The national unity coalition that backed this government no longer exists."
Now, with his rejection of that resignation, Italy's president has shifted the plot yet again.