Listening to Italy
Towards a new President?
On 3rd February Italy’s President Mattarella will have completed his 7 year term and a series of elections for his successor started on 24 January. The 1009 electors: “I Grandi Elettori” are the members of the elected upper and lower houses of parliament. Plus the five appointed Senators for Life, one ex-officio member and 58 specially elected representatives of the regional governments. Voting is by secret ballot. Because the election is continuing as this article is being written not all detailed information is available.
The parties have nominated a handful of candidates, although curiously any eligible person can receive votes. That is, any Italian citizen over 50 years of age who “enjoys civil and political rights”. For example, in 2015 Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Moviment (M5S) nominated the Independent Ferdinando Imposimato. He was a respected anti-mafia judge whose brother was shot as a reprisal to his involvement in many high-profile cases. At first ballot he had a clearly dominant 100 votes. Four or five nominees received votes in two digits while 25 other nominees received 2 or more votes and another 48 received only one vote.
However the process can quite legitimately be manipulated by the parties. A two thirds majority is needed to succeed in the first three bouts, while a more easily attainable absolute majority wins if it continues to a fourth vote. And in 2015 the 1009 voters were balloted 4 times. Cunning moves from the Partito Democratico‘s (Pd) then-leader Matteo Renzi, (the centre-left had the political majority) ensured that their nominee Sergio Mattarella won. Significantly Mattarella only received 5, 4 and 4 votes in the first three rounds. Renzi had organised more than 500 of his supporters to make in excess of 500 blank and invalid votes for each bout. Mattarella won on the fourth ballot with an eventual 665/212 votes (to Imposimato). This fourth ballot is usually the decider. And if by 3 February there is no result the President of the Senate, or Upper House, currently Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati will become temporary Head of State.
The President and Head of State’s position was created with the new Italian Republic on 1st January 1948. The President inherited many of the ceremonial duties of the King and in addition has the power to appoint the Leader of the Government, the Prime Minister. In 2011 President Giorgio Napolitano appointed Mario Monti to head what was termed a technocratic government following Berlusconi and the debt crisis. Then in February 2021 Mario Draghi was appointed by President Mattarella.
This time the centre-right coalition has a numerical majority but not an overall majority and has the opportunity to control the choice of President. The leader of Forza Italia (Fi) , 85 year old Silvio Berlusconi used his continuing charisma to pressure to nominate himself. The coalition includes Matteo Salvini’s diminishing Lega and Giorgia Meloni’s increasingly popular, fascist-leaning Fratelli d’Italia. Latterly in the campaign Salvini has been calling for other names, a reserve, because of the unreliability of Berlusconi and also the realisation that Silvio’s popularity exists largely in his own imagination.
It also follows that the centre-right’s interests could only be protected if their nominee was not a divisive candidate, and Berlusconi is always divisive. All parties held internal and external talks to find an agreed person to back but enthusiasm for other nominees was in short-supply. Steffano Folli discussed the options in La Repubblica on 19 January. He said that Italy needs an authoritative figure and the most bandied about phrase is: “we must not lose Draghi”.
Other parties were not in sufficiently strong positions to influence the nominations. Giuseppe Conte, the previous Prime Minister and current M5S President, lost the loyalty of a significant number of senators and parliamentarians following defections and expulsions, and other M5S Senators and MPs frequently disagree with his decisions.
The centre-left coalition lacked the numbers and force that it once had under Matteo Renzi. Renzi with his newish (2019) and miniscule centre-left party, Italia Viva, now has little influence.
Mario Draghi would be a popular national choice for President but it’s a role he couldn’t combine with that of Prime Minister. One widely-touted scenario was for (the unwilling) Sergio Mattarella to stand again as President, the so called “Matarella-bis”. He would then resign in Draghi’s favour when his government reaches elections in 2023.
One problem for Italy is that there are as limited a supply of electable and effective Prime Ministers as there are other candidates for President. Berlusconi was opposed to Draghi being President. His pre-election tactic as leader of Fi was to threaten to “destabilise” the government which he expected would provoke the election that the centre-right could win.
Draghi is a popular figure with between 65% and 70% approval ratings. His Premiership does have a small number of critics for reasons that the country is generally willing to stomach in exchange for the stability of firm governance. His government has operated under a two year state of emergency since January 2020 and in December this was extended until March 2022. His critics are profoundly disturbed by what they see as an authoritarian use of decrees and a silencing of dissent. That this has occurred during the Covid emergency could almost be palatable or excusable but the precedent is questionable. References to what these dissidents call Draghistan is usually only found on the internet. Certainly there are no references in La Repubblica.
Silvio Berlusconi’s tilt at the Presidency triggered a sequence of colourful national demonstrations. The Popolo viola, an internet-enabled pressure group revived itself with its old cry of NO BUNGA-BUNGA! This refers to the convictions (and later acquittal) from the case of Ruby and other call-girls, as well as extortion and bribery that had previously sunk his Premiership. The Sardines-against-Salvini also rose again to join the protests. Berlusconi was to appear in court for further consideration of aspects of the Ruby case (Ruby-ter) in the last week of January. It was postponed for a month because of health issues and also his nomination for the Presidency.
But Berlusconi never gives up! At one point he said that he would be happy to be made a Senator for Life (Senatore a vita), presumably instead of President. The constitution allows for only five such appointed Senators plus any ex-Presidents who stand as ex-officio. One can only smile at the inappropriateness of his qualification. A Senatore a vita is appointed by the President of the Italian Republic: “for outstanding patriotic merits in the social, scientific, artistic or literary field.”
La Repubblica discussed opposition within Europe to Berlusconi’s public posturing for the Presidency and an article on 16 January said that although Berlusconi won’t win he “is holding us all prisoner”. Journalist Claudio Tito made similar points on 21 January and his title condensed his argument by saying “who is thinking about the Country?”
On 21 January Berlusconi withdrew his candidacy. He had, he said, sufficient votes and was truly grateful for all the support and encouragement he had received. But, “Italy is now in need of unity”, with the additional implication that other parties were not helping this. But he said, as his statement concluded, “ The Forza Italia line is that Mario Draghi doesn’t become President and stays as Prime Minister where ….. there should be no reshuffles and no new appointments.” Obviously a return to his threat to destabilize the government, creating chaos and disunity.
Whether or not the election is concluded after this copy has gone to press the fall-out from what one writer justifiably called “the haggling, deceits, cunning and snares” of the 2022 campaign will certainly not have finished.