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Draghi Says He’ll Stay as Italy’s Prime Minister, if Parties Unite

ROME — Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy, who offered to resign last week after a rebellion in his broad national unity government, challenged the country’s fractious parties on Wednesday to stick together for the good of the country as a condition of him staying on.

“The only way forward, if we want to stay together, is to rebuild from the top this pact, with courage, altruism and credibility,” Mr. Draghi said in a speech to the Italian Senate, throwing down a gauntlet ahead of confidence votes in the upper and lower chambers of Parliament on Wednesday and Thursday that will determine the fate of his government, along with the stability of Italy and much of Europe at an especially tenuous time.

Mr. Draghi, speaking to long applause but also to some heckling, said that the public outcries for the government to continue were “impossible to ignore.”

“Italy is strong when it knows how to be united,” he said, calling the period a “miracle” for Italy, but adding that political motivations had “unfortunately” led parties to seek to distinguish themselves, weakening “the desire to move forward together.”

That politicking has left Italy teetering on the brink of instability once again after a period of relative calm, progress and expanding influence under Mr. Draghi’s leadership, which has made Italy an essential part of Europe’s united front against Russia in response to its war in Ukraine and its efforts to rebuild its economies amid the pandemic.

Now, much will depend on whether Italy’s political parties take up Mr. Draghi’s offer, especially the Five Star Movement, which set off the current crisis by withholding its support last week in a key vote on the government’s spending priorities.

That rebellion prompted the offer to resign by Mr. Draghi. Sergio Mattarella, Italy’s president, rejected the resignation and asked Mr. Draghi to address Parliament, where confidence votes will force all of the parties to take responsibility for their decisions.

Mr. Draghi told the Parliament on Wednesday that Five Star’s revolt signified “the end” of the pact of trust that had fueled his government, and that it was unacceptable. If one party could do it, anyone “could repeat it,” he warned, adding that ransom demands on the government to suit narrow political interests could become the norm.

He said that because he was appointed as a caretaker prime minister and not directly elected, his legitimacy was contingent on “as ample support as possible.”

“Are you ready to rebuild this pact?” Mr. Draghi repeated several times, concluding that the answer to this question was owed not to him, but to the Italian people.

If Mr. Draghi does not receive the support he asked for on Wednesday, he will resign for good, and many analysts believe that Mr. Mattarella will call for early elections, as soon as September.

Mr. Draghi’s speech was an effort to avoid the chaos that such a crisis would most likely bring.

On the one hand, he tried to remind Parliament, and the country, all that Italy had been able to achieve since he took power in February 2021 in a government crisis caused by the forced removal of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, now the leader of Five Star, which stirred the insurrection against Mr. Draghi. He repeated that the efficacy of the government, its ability to move fast and make quick decisions was rooted in a national unity that “was the best guarantee for a legitimate democracy.”

Mr. Draghi said that unity had allowed Italy to get out of the worst phase of the pandemic, funnel financial assistance quickly to those who needed it, cut “useless bureaucracy” that slowed the country, and aided the growth of the economy in a deeply challenging time.

He listed key overhauls in a variety of sectors, including increased energy independence from Russia, which he called “essential for the modernization of Italy,” and noted that Italy had already received 45.9 billion euros (about $47 billion) from the European Commission in recovery funds, with €21 billion more on the way. “If we can’t show that we can spend this money well,” he said, Italy would not receive more.

Mr. Draghi also attributed Italy’s greater footprint in Europe, and its strong position backing Ukraine with arms and condemning Russian aggression, to the period of political unity.

“The merit of these accomplishments was yours,” he told Parliament, adding to long applause, “I have never been as proud to be an Italian as I have been in these moments.”

But many analysts believe that they are actually creditable to Mr. Draghi and his reputation as a senior European statesman who saved the euro as the president of the European Central Bank. Without him, they say, the period of stability, and potentially Italy’s support for Ukraine and relevance in Europe, would be imperiled.

Mr. Draghi’s willingness to step back, at least momentarily, from the breach overcame the day’s first hurdle for Italians hoping that the current government will continue. But the Senate had five hours of dramatic debate ahead of it, and no one was quite sure what any of the parties would do as they all weighed their personal interests.

Five Star, riddled with warring factions, was in a particularly delicate situation, as a decision to back or bolt from the government both seemed likely to splinter the movement and cause defections.

It was also unclear if Mr. Draghi would continue or resign without the support of Five Star if many of its members left to support him. Another confidence vote is scheduled for Thursday in the Lower House of Parliament, where more Five Star defections are likely.

“What was supposed to be Conte’s vengeance against Draghi became the self-sinking of the former prime minister, whose political limitations have emerged,” wrote Stefano Folli, a political commentator with La Repubblica. “However it ends,” Mr. Folli added, “Five Star is doomed to a marginal role.”

As the Senate began its debate on Wednesday, no one was sure what would happen.

“It’s all uncertain,” said Giovanni Orsina, a political scientist at Luiss Guido Carli, a university in Rome. “We’ll need to see whether the parties want to play along and still support him.”

Many of the parties were concerned about an upcoming budget bill, which Mr. Draghi also emphasized in his speech, but there were also excruciating political calculations for each of the individual parties.

Five Star, which won 33 percent of the vote in 2018 and is, as a result, still the largest party in the government, has since cratered. It has dreaded elections for years, but as the country’s next scheduled elections approach in early 2023, the downside of early elections has decreased.

Still, the party, which has lost about two-thirds of its national support, would stand to be decimated at the ballot box. Mr. Conte’s decision to take a stand last week was widely seen as an effort to regain some of the party’s long lost anti-establishment identity. Instead, it seems to have backfired.

Mr. Draghi on Wednesday made it clear that his government would not cave in to Five Star’s demands. He held firm on military support for Ukraine, which Five Star opposes, and for the building of new gas facilities to give Italy energy independence from Russia as a matter of national security, something Five Star has also opposed.

He said that Italy’s universal income benefit for its poorest citizens, Five Star’s trademark achievement, was a positive development, but that it needed to be improved so that it actually helped those who needed it and did not become an incentive not to work. For now, it is loathed by the business sector and considered by many to be a drag on employment.

That hard line was met by heckling and disapproval from parts of the chamber.

The center-left Democratic Party, which is most supportive of Mr. Draghi, was also in a difficult position because it was counting on an alliance with Five Star, or what is left of it, to bolster its own electoral fortunes in the next elections. But now an alliance with Five Star — the party that prematurely ended the Draghi era — was itself laden with danger, and fractures had emerged in the left over its wisdom.

The right-wing coalition of the League party, led by the nationalist Matteo Salvini; Forza Italia, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi; and the hard-right Brothers of Italy, led by Giorgia Meloni, was currently leading in polls, though it was not clear how eager they were to govern at such a delicate time.

Mr. Salvini and Mr. Berlusconi have vowed to no longer sit in the same government with Five Star, but they also do not want to risk their credibility — especially with a business community that likes Mr. Draghi — by being seen as the ones who brought down the government. Italy’s political observers were paying especially close attention to what Mr. Salvini would do.

In his speech, Mr. Draghi mentioned as part of his government’s program the priorities of powerful League governors in the country’s north who want the prime minister to stay on, potentially driving a wedge between them and Mr. Salvini were he to consider bolting.

“Politically, Italians do not love the parties who rip up the government and lead them to elections,” Mr. Orsina said. But a main member of the alliance, Ms. Meloni has skyrocketed in the polls as she stayed in the opposition, and wants elections as soon as possible.

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