If it is any comfort, the UK is not the only country where politics are in a febrile, agitated state; they are something of a hot mess in Italy too. That said, while bickering, in-fighting, horse-trading and arm-twisting are the order of the day in both countries, it is only in the UK that corruption, deceit and a criminal investigation are also part of the mix. And in contrast to the UK, the catalyst for all the tension and uncertainty here is not the legally and morally indefensible behaviour of an increasingly unpopular Prime Minister, but the expected political side-effects of a perfectly proper constitutional process.
The process in question is the election of the next President of the Italian Republic at the start of February when the current incumbent’s seven-year term of office comes to an end. As set out in the Constitution, Sergio Matarella’s successor will be elected in a secret ballot by members of both parliamentary chambers (the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies) plus special electors representing each of the regions, forming an electoral college of about 1000 members. A two-thirds majority in the first three rounds of voting is required for victory, with an absolute majority (50%+1) sufficing thereafter – although even that can be difficult to secure and in some elections it has taken multiple rounds for a victor to emerge. While the framers of the constitution intended that an ‘elder statesman’ of national stature should fill the post (Matarella is a former Constitutional Judge) there is no formal candidacy process and any Italian citizen aged over fifty can in theory be elected, irrespective of whether he or she has expressed a desire to be a candidate.
As might be expected, the role of Head of State is largely ceremonial – but critically, not completely so. As guardian of the Constitution and symbol of national unity, the President has important powers in relation to inter alia judicial, executive, parliamentary and legislative affairs that can become decisive in times of political instability. Just in the last few years Matarella has, for instance, twice declined to exercise his power to call general elections. The first occasion was in autumn 2019 when Matteo Salvini, solely in order to try and capitalise on his rising popularity in the polls, pulled out of the coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle – M5S), in which his hard-right La Lega party was a junior partner. Instead of calling elections, however, Matarella instructed party leaders to try and form a new coalition as he was concerned that a victory for Salvini and his hard-right, Eurosceptic allies would endanger Italy’s relationship with Brussels and risk losing EU funding. But in a matter of days, M5S and the Partito Democratico (PD) became the principal partners in a new centre-left coalition, once again led by M5S’s Giuseppe Conte, and Salvini was effectively side-lined.
The second occasion was in the depths of the pandemic in January 2021 when Matteo Renzi, simply because he couldn’t get his own way on how to spend the EU Covid recovery funding, withdrew from the coalition in which his tiny and otherwise inconsequential Viva Italia party was a minority partner and thereby brought the government down. Matarella again preferred to see if a new coalition could be formed, and even when negotiations failed, he still shied away from calling elections on the grounds that at a time of national crisis an election would be a dangerous distraction from dealing with the ongoing Covid emergency. Added to which, there were concerns that a destabilising election could spook the EU which had just handed Italy a huge sum of money from its Covid recovery fund. So he used another of his presidential powers to appoint Mario Draghi Prime Minister and tasked this formidable political operator with assembling a cross-party government of national unity to steer the country safely through the pandemic, which Draghi has gone on to do with considerable success and to widespread approval.
And it is these three ingredients – 1) the relative ease with which someone can become a presidential candidate, 2) the political implications of some key presidential powers, and 3) the popularity of ‘Super Mario’ (as Draghi became known after successfully rescued the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis) – that have been stirred into the political cauldron that has been bubbling away for several weeks now.
As a result of the first, the superannuated proto-populist Silvio Berlusconi felt the time was right for him to throw his corruption-stained hat into the ring and set about garnering support for his candidacy among hard- and centre-right parties where he retains a degree of popularity. In light of the second, though, many have been appalled by the prospect of this 85-year-old convicted tax fraudster, who still faces proceedings for bribery, defamation and child prostitution, getting his grubby hands on any of the levers of power, and of bringing the office of Head of State into disrepute.
Then, as a result of all three, plus a strong ‘anyone but Berlusconi’ sentiment in some quarters, Mario Draghi has found himself the favourite in a race which he has not formally entered. Those who wish to see Draghi move into the Palazzo Quirinale argue that he is best placed to ensure political stability at a time when all the parties are already gearing up for the general election that is due in 2023, especially since any instability may affect recovery funding from the EU where Draghi is still held in extremely high regard. There are others, however, who argue that he should remain in the Palazzo Chigi as long as possible as they fear his resignation as Prime Minister may cause the government that he has so carefully created and nurtured to collapse and possibly trigger a snap general election – thus bringing about the very instability he was appointed to avoid. Draghi himself, meanwhile, has sought to remain above the fray, but with his gnomic declaration that “My personal destiny is of no importance, I have no particular ambitions. I am, if you like, a grandfather in the service of the institutions,” he has not exactly helped clarify matters. Although, since he has not objected to his name being put forward, it can be inferred that he is not uninterested in the role.
Finally, thanks to the first, a further dozen or more names from across the political spectrum have been thrown into the pot, in an effort to find someone that the pro- and anti-Draghi factions as well as the pro- and anti-Berlsuconi factions can all agree on – and that’s before any of the usual political rivalries and alliances have been added to the mix. But the heat was turned down quite a bit last weekend when Berlusconi suddenly pulled out of the race at the last minute. While he claimed he was withdrawing as a gesture of ‘national responsibility’ at a time when ‘Italy needs unity’, commentators were of the view that he had realised he lacked sufficient parliamentary support so withdrew in order to avoid humiliation. Whatever the reason, his withdrawal certainly simplified things – slightly, anyway – and for the time being at least, the hot mess had been reduced to a steady simmer by the time parliamentarians started to cast their ballots in the first round of voting on Monday morning…