Italian Presidential Elections

Listening to Italy

by Orecchiette

The new old President

On 3 February 80 year old Sergio Mattarella was preparing to move house after the end of his seven year term as President of Italy. He was emphatic that he had no wish to serve again. The process of electing a successor started on 24 January and it was not smooth. The anticipated four rounds of voting were scheduled, but in the end there were seven inconclusive votes and a lot of black smoke and agonising before the final, decisive eighth vote. Finally, with the total inability of parliament to agree on one consensual candidate, pressure was put on Mattarella to stand. He felt very strongly that he had a sense of duty and put his future plans behind him and agreed to serve as President for another term.

Unlike the UK, Italy’s Head of State has a significant role with the actual power to dismiss a government or be instrumental in forming a new government. As Orecchiette said last month, Mario Draghi the current Premier, was appointed by President Mattarella. The previous President, Giorgio Napolitano, had brought in Mario Monti to head a technocratic administration following the collapse of Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2011.

The electors for the process are always the serving members of the Upper and Lower House, plus (currently) 6 Senators for Life and some specially elected members of the Regional Assemblies. The  process seems curious as they are able to nominate any Italian citizen over 50 years of age who “enjoys civil and political rights”. The nominee does not even have to agree to be nominated. So Mattarella actually received 39 votes in ballot No 2 even though he’d said that he didn’t want to stand. In addition the parties nominate their preferred candidates and for ballot No 2, for example,  there were a total of more than 40 nominees. 

In the last Presidential election Matteo Renzi had successfully organised the election of Mattarella. This time the lack of a dominant voice and the numerical closeness of the parties resulted in a succession of stalemates with no credible candidate in common. The parties suffered serious discord amongst themselves. Symptomatic of this turbulence was the 39 votes received by Umberto Bossi on Ballot 2. He was the ex-leader of the old Lega Nord, who “allegedly” appropriated party funds. He was not exonerated but was eventually made party President. His nomination was surely a comment on the current fractures within the Lega itself and perhaps also a pointer to a strong sense of frustration that suggested this totally inappropriate vote. 

The Presidential elections concluded on the second vote of 29 January with a very large majority for Mattarella. He received a standing ovation in the chamber, an ovation of gratitude and relief. He had only agreed to stand on that very morning saying that he had a responsibility to the country. His selflessness and sense of duty were saluted by the electorate and the wider country.

The discord underlying the parties’ and coalitions’ problems descended into what Dagospiawebsite called “civil war”. It has to be said that all parties have one very large eye on next year’s general election . 

The general election poses an existential threat to The Five Star (M5S), which was seen as a refreshingly anti-corruption, anti-old style party option for Italian voters. It was for a time a major player in Italy, but a significant number of their elected parliamentarians in the elected Senate and lower house have left the Movement. Many also realise that their own re-election prospects are dim. 

Ex-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte became M5S President and effective leader in August 2021. He has made changes which have not pleased the previous leader and one of the founder members, Luigi Di Maio. Conte also joined with Salvini of the right-wing Lega to support the candidature of Elisabetta Belloni, the Head of the Department of Information and Security, for President. Di Maio bitterly opposed this and the two men now have a particularly poisonous relationship. M5S founder Beppe Grillo has said that this is suicidal to both men and certainly is not to the benefit of the Movement. 

Currently there is speculation that the Movement could split into two. A very recent survey said that over 70% of members would favour Conte as leader over Di Maio. Another complication is that a court case in Naples has ruled that the election of Conte as the Movement’s President was contrary to M5S statutes. So a raging civil war is particularly active and the Presidential election exacerbated differences.

The Centre Left Coalition’s largest party the Partito Democratico (PD) under ex-Premier Enrico Letta also suffered discord over a Presidential nominee. Letta is currently trying to make an alliance with the small Azione party. The stability and size of the Centre-Left and Centre-Right coalitions are crucial to their success in the 2023 elections.

Finally the Centre-Right. Silvio Berlusconi antagonised his Coalition partners by standing for President. Matteo Salvini of Lega and Giorgia Meloni of Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy – FdI) were relieved when he withdrew. There were divisions between the two over subsequent presidential nominations and Meloni withdrew her support for Salvini and their Coalition in what was called a ”divorce”. The fascist-leaning FdI has overtaken Lega in the polls and could come out of the elections as the largest party in the Coalition, if it still exists in that form. 

Salvini is also facing difficulties within his own party. The Veneto region, for example, is not alone in becoming very vocal in their contention that Salvini is following his own agenda and neglecting his traditional northern heartlands, the old Lega Nord territory. 

Meanwhile the task of government has to continue and currently Prime Minister Draghi is attempting to work to implement the European Recovery Fund. This funding is contingent on the success of the changes which must be made to bureaucratic and structural organisation within Italy. Draghi can occasionally be seen expressing his exasperation and frustration at the struggle to operate within the Italian Parliament and its frequently warring factions. This is not an easy job.

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