Wednesday

17th Aug 2022

Analysis

In Italy, sighs of relief as Mattarella stays put

  • The eight rounds of voting it took to re-elect Sergio Mattarella are not an Italian record - in 1971 it took 23 rounds (Photo: Quirinale)
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Call an Italian MP today, and one will most likely hear a note of relief in their voice - similar to that of a high school student who passed the 'Esame di Maturità' (a graduation exam as feared in Italy as the Baccalauréat in France.)

Italy's parliament re-elected 80-year-old head of state Sergio Mattarella for a second term at the weekend.

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  • The Quirinale - the Italian presidential palace home to Mattarella for the past seven years, and now possibly another seven (Photo: Wikimedia)

The Catholic left-winger from Sicily with ice-blue eyes was supported by almost all the Italian parties, including the far-right League, the moderate leftwing Democratic Party (PD) and the post-populist 5 Star Movement (M5S).

It took eight rounds of voting to elect Mattarella — but the government led by Mario Draghi has been strengthened, along with the social democratic PD that is a key part of Draghi's government. On the other hand, populist parties have emerged weaker, in particular the far-right League.

To be sure, multiple rounds of voting for an Italian president is not actually that unusual. In 1971, for example, 23 rounds were needed to elect Christian Democrat Giovanni Leone. The reelection is also something of personal triumph for Mattarella, albeit an unwanted one.

During the last months of his mandate, Mattarella had repeatedly stressed he wanted to devote himself to his family after seven years at the Quirinale — the palace in Rome that once was home to the kings of Italy and is now the head of state's official residence.

Ahead of the vote, Italian newspapers published pictures of his staff packing his boxes for the move to Rome's elegant Parioli district, where he was planning to live in retirement.

Yet a reelection of president is unusual. It happened only once before, in 2013, when the consequences of the financial crisis were still raging. The parliament, fearing that political instability might lead the country to a Greece-like scenario, re-elected then-president Giorgio Napolitano.

Today the spread between Italian 10-year government bonds and German bunds is under control and Italy's economic outlook looks promising. According to IMF estimates, GDP should grow by 3.8 percent this year. A few days ago the third so-called tech unicorn in Italian history, a space logistics company, based near Lake Como, announced it's to be listed on the Nasdaq later this year.

Despite the relative stability of Italy, Mattarella's services still were needed.

The main reason is that none of the parties was strong enough to impose its own candidate.

The leader of the far-right League Matteo Salvini tried to play kingmaker by proposing Elisabetta Casellati, the president of the Senate and a member of Silvio Berlusconi's conservative Forza Italia. But she did not get sufficient support from the parties on the centre-right.

As for the social democrats, the PD, they did not have enough seats to elect anyone of their choice. And yet, the PD's leader, Enrico Letta, played a key role by playing a decisive role in ensuring votes ultimately were cast for the sitting head of state.

"There was definitely a kingmaker, and it was Enrico Letta [the PD secretary]," said Nadia Urbinati, professor of political theory at Columbia University.

A second reason for Mattarella's re-election is trust. Although the pandemic may be winding down, the situation remains fraught for many ordinary Italians. More than 300 people died on Monday (31 January) alone – and Mattarella is the politician who inspires the most trust in the citizens.

A third reason for Mattarella's reelection is the self-interest of Italian parliamentarians. Had Mario Draghi had been elected instead of Mattarella, as some top politicians hoped, parliament might not have been able to form a new government, triggering a general election that would have jeopardized the salaries - and pensions - of many MPs.

Mattarella thanked the parliament after his reelection and said he would respect its decisions, pledging to "interpret the expectations and hopes" of Italians.

Some media pointed out that since the presidential term lasts seven years, Mattarella could end up staying in the Quirinale palace for 14 years, becoming almost a kind of a monarch.

"The Italian constitution does not expressly stipulate a ban on re-election," said Gaetano Azzariti, professor of constitutional law at La Sapienza University in Rome. "In democratic systems it is a fundamental principle that any top monocratic office is temporary," he said.

Several MPs told EUobserver that Mattarella only agreed to a second term "out of a sense of duty". But, according to them, his presence will improved prospects for stability and coherence.

His re-election is likely to have several consequences on the Italian political landscape.

Italy of two presidents?

First of all, it strengthened the national unity government led by former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi.

Mattarella and Draghi respect each other and are both staunchly pro-EU and pro-Nato, and this new era, post reelection, has been dubbed the "Italy of the two presidents" under which Draghi will continue to exercise economic and financial know-how, and Mattarella will wield his political capital and gravitas.

Rarely in the history of the Italian republic has there been greater harmony between the head of state and the prime minister.

Letta's leadership over the quarrelsome PD also has been reinforced while the failed run at the presidency by Berlusconi is widely seen as evidence of the 85-year-old tycoon's growing weakness.

Meanwhile the M5S continued to show major divisions. Luigi Di Maio of the M5S, and the country's foreign minister, would have liked to see Draghi replace Mattarella. But former prime minister and M5S political leader Giuseppe Conte was banking on Elisabetta Belloni, a diplomat and the current director of a department that coordinates the secret services.

As for Salvini, "this was his great débacle," said Urbinati, the Columbia professor.

"It is now clear that the League is divided: on one side there is him, and on the other side there is the minister of economic development Giancarlo Giorgetti, who is bound to corporate interests," said Urbinati. "They have different strategies".

By supporting Mattarella, Salvini also infuriated his ally Giorgia Meloni, leader of the ultranationalist Brothers of Italy, one of the few parties that did not vote for the incumbent president.

Author bio

Valentina Saini is a freelance journalist specialising in Italian social issues and politics, gender issues and the Middle East and North Africa region.

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