ROME — Italy’s president on Thursday accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, dissolved Parliament and called for new elections, bringing to a close an exceptional period of Italian stability and influence, and opening what promised to be a chaotic political season as Europe struggles to maintain resolve in the face of Russian aggression.
Having demurred once last week, Sergio Mattarella, the country’s president, acted reluctantly following the unraveling of Mr. Draghi’s national unity government on Wednesday, when populist and nationalist forces abandoned the prime minister in a confidence vote. The government set new elections for Sept. 25.
“Dissolving of the parliament is always the last choice,” Mr. Mattarella said in an evening address to the nation in which he said he had thanked Mr. Draghi for his service but that he had decided there was “no hope for a new majority” and he needed to call early elections.
Given the enormous challenges facing Italy — inflation, the war in Ukraine, the reforms needed to obtain European Union recovery funds and the continued threat of the pandemic — Mr. Mattarella said he hoped that despite the coming election, parties would be able to give a “constructive contribution” on such issues, “in the superior interest of Italy.”
Mr. Mattarella had little choice this time but to accept Mr. Draghi’s resignation after the prime minister’s parliamentary debacle this week, and to call for elections he had long sought to avoid. Polls currently show that hard-right parties with histories of either intense opposition to the European Union or adoration of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russa are, for now, best positioned to win an election.
The downfall of Mr. Draghi alarmed many Italians and European officials and sent European markets quivering, and added yet another unpredictable element to the West’s stability and leadership, alongside the White House’s announcement on Thursday that President Biden, 79, had tested positive for the coronavirus.
Mr. Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank who helped save the euro, had increased Italy’s international footprint and economic outlook by the sheer force of his credibility, becoming an essential part of a unified Western alliance that has stood up to Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine.
He sought to modernize the country and make Italy, a debt-laden nation for years seen as a vulnerable spot for Europe’s economic and political health, more energy independent and a force for European unity and values.
His year-and-a-half in power revealed the appeal of an unapologetically pro-European and competent government focused on pragmatic results. His supporters hoped that Mr. Draghi’s centrism would act as a moderating influence on the country’s populist forces, which toned down and joined his national unity government.
But his government’s abrupt collapse has once again turned Italy into a political laboratory for Europe. In April, President Emmanuel Macron won re-election but the contest showed the hard right to be an expanding force in France. Germans last autumn voted to reward and extend the stability and centrism they had grown accustomed to under the former chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Now elections in Italy are likely to reveal just how much force the populists retain. Their rabble rousing and demonizing style of politics had seemed to be in retreat after the pandemic and its economic fallout put a high premium on the competent governance personified by Mr. Draghi. But perhaps not.
Mr. Draghi will not disappear right away. He will stay on in a caretaker capacity until the conclusion of elections, essentially limiting his role, he said Thursday evening in a meeting with his ministers, to protecting the spending of billions of euros in transformative recovery funds from the European Union, and dealing with issues related to the war in Ukraine, inflation and the cost of energy.
“Now we must maintain the same determination in the activity we can carry out in the coming weeks, within the limits of the parameters that have been drawn,” Mr. Draghi said at the meeting, telling his ministers they should be proud of the work they did and that they had shown Italy had all it needed to be “strong” and “credible” in the world. He concluded by saying there would be a time for goodbyes, but “now let’s get to work.”
A major part of that work will be providing the country a smooth transition to the new elections.
The right-wing alliance hoping to win and form the next government consists of Matteo Salvini of the hard-right League party; Giorgia Meloni, who leads the Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist roots; and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, whose support, while having dwindled, is pivotal.
The current Italian electoral system greatly favors strong coalitions, and those three parties now appear united while the center-left, which includes the Democratic Party, is fragmented.
“This is the real reason that Berlusconi and Salvini collapsed the government,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, an expert in the Italian political system at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome, who said the right would clearly win the elections unless the Draghi government’s collapse had unexpected consequences. “This is the worst moment for the center-left to go to vote. It can’t put together a competitive coalition.”
Part of the reason it could not form a coalition, he said, is that the Five Star Movement, by setting off the government crisis last week, had made themselves poisonous in a campaign in which the left would seek to blame the right for pulling support from Mr. Draghi.
Five Star, led by Giuseppe Conte, the bitter former prime minister whom Mr. Draghi replaced last year, withheld its support in a key government vote last week in the hopes, analysts say, of reclaiming some of its old anti-establishment identity ahead of the elections. Instead, their clumsy maneuver convinced Mr. Draghi that the cooperation necessary to run a national unity government had evaporated and he tendered his resignation.
Mr. Mattarella at first rejected the resignation and asked Mr. Draghi to make a last-ditch effort to persuade the country’s fractious parties to stick together for the benefit of the nation.
On Wednesday Mr. Draghi tried to do that, arguing before Parliament that “the only way forward, if we want to stay together, is to rebuild from the top this pact, with courage, altruism and credibility.” His gambit failed spectacularly, with nationalist and populist forces reuniting to fatally torpedo the government. Mr. Salvini in particular pounced on the opportunity to go to elections.
Ms. Meloni, for her part, who remained outside the government, saw her poll numbers increase dramatically in the opposition and has sought to soften her image and seem more amenable to more moderate voters.
An astute and experienced politician, she positioned herself in the European mainstream as an ardent supporter of Ukraine and a tough critic of Russia’s aggression as opposed to Mr. Salvini and Mr. Berlusconi, who both have long records of admiring and even venerating Mr. Putin.
For years Ms. Meloni has stayed in the opposition. But political experts and pollsters say that the time for her to take power seems to have come as Mr. Draghi’s government comes to a close.
If Mr. Draghi showed a rare flash of ire on Wednesday, as it became clear that the unity he called for was not coming, he struck a more conciliatory tone as he spoke in the lower house of Parliament on Thursday morning.
“First of all, thank you,” Mr. Draghi said to an extended standing ovation, though not from the League and Five Star Movement parties, which refused to cast a ballot for him in Wednesday’s confidence vote and essentially pulled the plug on his government.
As the applause faded, he joked that sometimes even a banker’s heart beat. Then he read a short note saying that “in light of yesterday’s vote” in the Senate, he would suspend the proceedings until his meeting with Mr. Mattarella. He then went to the president’s official residence at the Quirinal Palace and resigned.