ROME — The stunning announcement by Prime Minister Mario Draghi that he would resign after a rebellion in his national unity government left Italians alarmed and dismayed on Friday, and bitten by a deep sense of uncertainty over where the country was now headed.
Political and business leaders were incredulous. Church leaders expressed alarm. Italians, used to more than their share of political tumult, shook their heads in disbelief in coffee bars.
“I don’t know exactly what happened yesterday. Italian politics is always so hard to understand, we just forgot about it while Draghi was in power,” said Laura Comasi, 33, while she swept the street in front of the clothing shop in Rome where she works near Parliament. “I just know that I felt safe and part of a credible country during his government.”
President Sergio Mattarella refused to accept Mr. Draghi’s resignation on Thursday, asking him instead to address Parliament next week and take a measure of his support, including of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which withheld its support in a confidence vote.
The move was widely seen as an effort by Mr. Mattarella, who has provided Italy with stability during an exceptionally volatile seven years, to freeze the situation in place and give Mr. Draghi time to reconsider, and Italy’s political forces time to convince him to stay on.
Mr. Draghi actually survived the confidence vote, but he has put the bar higher than the usual leader in Italy’s fragmented coalition politics. He argued that he was brought in to lead a national unity government, and that it made no sense for him to stay if there was no unity and if major parties sought to hold the government hostage with lists of demands.
That is asking a lot of Italians, who are more accustomed to the horse trading, back room deals and power dynamics that usually fuel government. But for a year and a half, Mr. Draghi, who is no political neophyte, has managed to lead with an exceptionally broad consensus — and get things done.
With Italy enjoying increased stability and relevance, the news that part of Mr. Draghi’s coalition would bolt and knock the country back onto wobbly footing was all the more astonishing.
Some leaders on Friday seemed to think it was possible Mr. Draghi would stay, and certainly hoped so.
“We have asked President Mario Draghi to review his decision: a crisis at this moment opens uncertain prospects for the country,” Andrea Orlando, a member of the center-left Democratic Party and the minister of labor and social policies, said in Trento on Friday. “In recent weeks we’ve opened discussion on the question of wages, and giving a response is a priority.”
Giancarlo Giorgetti, the powerful minister for economic development with the nationalist League Party, used the metaphor of the extra injury time at the end of a soccer match to give hope that Mr. Draghi could stay on.
“There is always extra time,” he said.
But most considered a reversal of fortune a long shot and had already begun to survey the damage. Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio, a former Five Star leader who left last month to form his own party, Together for the Future, framed the potential departure of Mr. Draghi as a disaster for Italy and a victory for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“Yesterday they were making a toast in Moscow,” Mr. Di Maio said in an interview on a national radio. “Because Mario Draghi’s head was served to Putin on a silver plate. Autocracies are toasting and democracies are weaker.”
“Now even Europe is weaker,” he added.
Mr. Di Maio, who knows the inner workings of Five Star well, added that “this crisis was planned in advance.”
Italy’s business community had shown great support for Mr. Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank largely credited with saving the euro. They believed he brought stability and a favorable environment for investment. Its leaders seemed almost struck by disbelief over the turn of events.
“With complete incredulity, we are witnessing political developments that clearly ignore the obligations that the government has taken on with its majority and with the country,” said Carlo Bonomi, the leader of Italy’s industrialist association, Confindustria.
He called the rebellion by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement an act of “complete irresponsibility that leaves us speechless” that could lead to the rise of borrowing costs and economic pain.
The hand wringing was not limited to secular society.
Cardinal Matteo Zuppi, the Archbishop of Bologna and president of the Italian bishops Conference, who is close to Pope Francis, said on Friday that “we look with great concern at the political situation that is taking shape.”
He lamented that the political crisis now risked inflaming “a more general phase of crisis” defined by the war in Ukraine, inflation and the lingering pandemic.
Those who had hitched their wagons to the Five Star Movement sought to argue that it was Mr. Draghi who was to blame.
Marco Travaglio, editor of the anti-establishment and pro-populist newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano, argued that “the ex-banker” used to getting his way had essentially tumbled out of power by following his own pride and was incapable of mediating. “He sought the crisis,” he wrote.
Mr. Draghi’s most ardent backers, who regard him as a political savior who put Italy on a path to modernization, stronger democratic values and good sense, saw it otherwise.
Christian Rocca, the editor of Linkiesta, which disdains Italy’s Five Star Movement as a dangerous gang of incompetent and anti-democratic nincompoops, has for years warned that Giuseppe Conte, the head of Five Star, would have devastating effects on Italy.
A lawyer who had been plucked from obscurity to run the country, Mr. Conte was pushed out as prime minister last year, and Mr. Draghi was called in by the president as s sure set of hands to replace him.
Mr. Rocca wrote on Friday that it was a “sign of these crazy times” that “the miserable lawyer without skills or talent, who, amid the backdrop of a dramatic attack on Europe, ordered by a criminal admired by his movement of Five Idiots, brings down a government run by the most authoritative political figure in the Western Hemisphere.”
Others influential backers of Mr. Draghi sought to maintain a measure of optimism.
Claudio Cerasa, the editor of Il Foglio, wrote that while there was an “irresistible” temptation for the coalition to re-coalesce and convince Mr. Draghi, who had arrived to provide stability like “manna from heaven,” to stay put, things could very well careen toward early elections.
But Mr. Cerasa argued that such an eventuality was not necessarily so terrible, given that the last time early elections seemed likely, in 2019, Matteo Salvini, the nationalist leader of the League Party, seemed all but invincible.
He argued that Mr. Mattarella and Mr. Draghi had inoculated Italy with anti-populist “antibodies” and that Mr. Draghi’s government had essentially determined Italy’s future path with unbreakable contracts and commitments to receive billions of euros in European Union funding.
As the opposing sides cast blame and pointed fingers, the most pertinent question was what would happen next. On Friday, the focus among members of Parliament and political operatives shifted to Mr. Salvini, the leader of the League, who could very well determine the survival of the government if Mr. Draghi is at all amenable to continuing.
Mr. Salvini, since slipping out of power in 2019 in a power grab turned overreach, has been desperate for a chance to go to early elections and cash in on his popularity. But political machinations keep depriving him of that chance. When Mr. Draghi arrived, Mr. Salvini saw the writing on the wall and joined the national unity government, hoping to project responsibility in a time of crisis.
Throughout it all, his popularity diminished, while that of fellow right-wing politician Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party, has skyrocketed as she stayed in the opposition, and in campaign mode.
Now, the rebellion by Five Star has given Mr. Salvini political cover to leave. But it is unclear what he wants. On the one hand an alliance with Ms. Meloni and center-right forces would make them hard to beat in an early election. But Mr. Salvini’s base of businessmen in the country’s north like Mr. Draghi, and the stability and investment he brings, and they fear the economic repercussions of a new phase of political instability.
Mr. Salvini, writing on the League’s Facebook page, wrote his party would “do what’s good for Italy and Italians.”
Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting from Rome.