ROME — On a scorching afternoon in Rome, some of Italy’s most powerful politicians gathered in the shade of a luxury villa in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, sat down to a lunch of swordfish and salad, and plotted to overthrow the government of Mario Draghi.
The host at Villa Grande on Tuesday, July 19 was Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s billionaire former prime minister who leads the center-right Forza Italia party. Alongside him was Matteo Salvini of the far-right League, with representatives of other groups, and their aides.
Urging the plotters on by phone as talks sprawled into the next day was Giorgia Meloni, the opposition leader who is now in pole position to become Italy’s next prime minister in a snap election this fall.
Within 24 hours, Draghi’s fate was sealed. The plotters had withdrawn their backing for his grand coalition and the prime minister had nowhere left to go but to the presidential palace, where on Thursday morning he resigned.
Italy now faces months of turmoil. It will likely take several weeks after the September 25 election before a new coalition can be put together.
Italy’s political crisis is a problem for the European Union, too. The central bank is trying to avert a looming recession, while balancing the need to rein in inflation with the risks of a new debt crisis blowing up.
As war rages on in Ukraine and energy supplies dwindle, some in Italian politics are now asking whether the right-wingers really know what they have done.
For Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio, the coalition parties were “playing games with the future of the Italian people. The effects of this tragic choice will remain in our history,” he said.
The crisis for Draghi began a week earlier. After months of mounting tension within the coalition, the populist 5Star Movement refused to support him in a key confidence vote on a €26 billion package of aid to ease the cost of living squeeze.
Draghi responded by offering to resign, but President Sergio Mattarella asked him to try to win over his critics. He agreed and timetabled a fresh confidence vote in parliament for July 20.
The day before that vote was due, Berlusconi invited his allies to a meeting to discuss tactics over lunch.
Film stars and fashionistas
The Appian Way is Rome’s most glamorous address, a historic road lined with monuments and catacombs that leads out of the capital toward the far reaches of the ancient empire. Among the famous residents of the area are film stars like Gina Lollobrigida and Valentino, the 90-year-old fashion designer.
It was here, in his five-bedroom Villa Grande — which he bought 20 years ago and then lent to the late director Franco Zeffirelli — that Berlusconi gathered his colleagues for talks.
Accompanied by his 32-year-old girlfriend, Marta Fascina, the 85-year-old billionaire welcomed guests to his terrace and began the discussions.
According to Berlusconi himself, the meeting’s purpose was to discuss the “very worrying and inexplicable behavior of the 5Star” movement, which triggered the crisis last week.
But another agenda was rapidly gaining momentum: the need to bring down Draghi’s coalition and trigger a snap election. A person who was at the meeting said that Salvini was the most overtly insistent that the right should move toward elections.
But Berlusconi was clearly of the same mind, the person said. He produced several pages of notes, with a 20-point electoral program. “It included plans for tax reform, justice and pensions,” the person said. “This meeting was the first step of the election campaign.”
It was uncomfortably hot. The guests sat and sweated on the terrace, overlooking the gardens of aloe vera and Mediterranean pines. Lunch concluded with servings of frozen yogurt — Berlusconi is apparently on a health drive — and a side dish of frustration. The right-wingers were annoyed that Draghi had chosen to meet the center-left Democratic Party’s leader, Enrico Letta, that morning while snubbing them.
They talked about the need to revise welfare payments, tackle illegal migration, a tax amnesty and investments in nuclear energy. It felt like a program for a new government.
After six hours, Berlusconi decided it was time to call the prime minister himself. The right was clear about what they needed — a radical change in direction of Draghi’s administration, without the 5Star Movement on board.
Berlusconi stayed home while his Forza Italia colleague Antonio Tajani and Salvini went to Draghi’s residence for the showdown at 7:45 p.m. They demanded a reshuffle and an overhaul of the government’s agenda.
It did not go well. When Salvini and Tajani left, it was clear to Draghi that the next day would be a difficult one.
The right-wingers returned to Villa Grande and talks continued late into the night, only finally breaking up at 12:30 a.m.
Wednesday dawned and Draghi’s moment of reckoning had arrived. According to people familiar with his thinking, he believed he simply could not afford to compromise.
As the unelected leader of a government of national unity, plucked by the president to help steer the country out of the pandemic last year, Draghi felt he had no mandate to indulge in political deal-making. If he gave in to one set of demands for concessions from the right, it would be the beginning of horse-trading that would never end, he felt.
So it was an angry prime minister who took his message to parliament. Having refused to entertain the right’s demands, Draghi was told that Forza Italia, the League and 5Stars would not turn out to support him in the crucial confidence vote he had called.
Berlusconi’s allies returned to Villa Grande after Draghi’s speech. Meloni, the 45-year-old leader of the opposition Brothers of Italy party, dialed in repeatedly for talks with Salvini. She was pushing for her fellow leaders to pull out of Draghi’s coalition and trigger elections.
On Wednesday evening, the vote finally came. Draghi won but had lost the support of the right and 5Stars. Afterward, Salvini returned to Berlusconi’s villa for what was clearly a celebration dinner.
Yet despite their victory, the right is now worried they will also get the blame for bringing Draghi down in order to trigger a vote that polls suggested they will win. Draghi was a popular prime minister who had been urged by world leaders as well as thousands of ordinary Italians to stay.
Spokespeople for both Forza Italia and the League denied that they had plotted to remove Draghi, insisting they only wanted him to lead a new government.
One League insider said the party did not make their decision to pull out until after Draghi’s “very harsh” speech offering “no concessions” on Thursday. “It certainly influenced the decision,” the person said. “We wanted to stay in government — but not at any cost.”
As for Draghi, he is apparently reconciled to his fate, according to one person familiar with the matter. He will spend the next few months leading a caretaker administration until a new government is formed. After the plots and ultimatums — and the seared fish lunches — the man nicknamed Super Mario is said to be “serene.”