The political cauldron in Rome was at a steady simmer on Monday when the electoral college of around a thousand parliamentarians cast their ballots in the first round of voting for a new President of the Republic. Normally this passes almost unnoticed, as if it is merely some piece of constitutional house-keeping that happens every seven years, the only evidence of which is a new face carrying out ceremonial duties on behalf of the nation.
This time around, however, the election of a new Head of State has dominated the news cycles here almost as much as “partygate” and criminal investigations into the Prime Minister’s activities have in the UK. To a large degree, this is because over the course of the pandemic, people have realised that the President’s job is not merely ceremonial and that his actions can have genuine political implications. Sergio Matarella’s interventions, for instance, twice avoided destabilising general elections that would have disrupted the national Covid response and could have put substantial sums of EU recovery funding at risk. Consequently, at such a delicate time in the ongoing Covid emergency, there was widespread recognition that it mattered now more than ever that Matarella’s replacement should be someone with the safest possible pair of hands and with enough cross-party support to provide stability and confidence both at home and abroad.
The only problem was, it was felt by many that the most suitable and obvious candidate for the job was Mario Draghi, the country’s highly-regarded Prime Minister. However, just as many, while not disputing Draghi’s eminent suitability, pointed out that if he were elected President, he would have to resign as PM, thus putting at risk the very stability Matarella himself had appointed him to achieve. And to add to the dilemma, that superannuated proto-populist Silvio Berlusconi, who still enjoys a degree of support on the right, had also thrown his corruption-stained hat into the ring. So the question soon boiled down to should they keep Draghi in post by electing Berlusconi – the only other high-profile ‘big hitter’ in the race – and trust that the former’s statesmanship and gravitas would outweigh the latter’s divisiveness and overtly partisan nature; or, in order to neutralise Berlusconi, should they elect Draghi and hope that, if the government collapsed, he would provide the same steadying hand as President as he had as Prime Minister; or was there a way they could find a third option that would keep Draghi in the Palazzo Chigi while simultaneously keeping Berlusconi out of the Palazzo Quirinale?
In the end, things became simpler – in theory, at least – when Berlusconi pulled out of the race two days before voting began, widely believed to be because he realised he lacked sufficient parliamentary support so withdrew in order to avoid humiliation. Consequently, those in the ‘anyone but Berlusconi’ camp no longer felt compelled to back Draghi’s candidacy regardless of the destabilising effect this may well have on the government. And by the time voting began on Monday, many more had come to a similar conclusion: even though Draghi remained the ideal candidate, at this particular time he could better serve the needs of the country by remaining as PM. So now the focus shifted to finding another candidate who would be able to command support across the political spectrum. The search didn’t go well.
For a start, while the Draghi/Berlusconi drama had been playing out, the list of candidates had grown to in excess of thirty individuals, making it all but impossible for any of them to achieve the two-thirds majority (ie 665 votes) required in the first three daily rounds of voting. Indeed, in each of the first two rounds, the ‘winning’ candidate, an 86-year-old former constitutional judge, secured fewer than 40 votes, largely because the main centre-left and centre right parliamentary groupings couldn’t agree on a common candidate and so submitted blank votes. More absurd still, the candidate who topped the poll in the third round was none other than Sergio Matarella himself, the 80-year-old outgoing President who had repeatedly stated that he had no wish to serve a second term.
In subsequent rounds, the required majority dropped to 50%+1, but with the centre-left and centre-right continuing to take it in turns to reject each other’s nominees and to abstain or submit blank votes, it still proved impossible for any candidate to come anywhere close to even the lower threshold of 505 votes without a mandate from any of the main parties. But while the current and a former head of the Senate, a former EU commissioner, a former PM and a collection of ex-ministers, diplomats and judges all fell by the wayside, Matarella somehow continued to top the poll in successive rounds, and by a larger margin each time, despite having no formal support from any party, and despite what appeared to be either collective amnesia or collective deafness among parliamentarians regarding his wishes.
By the time the 7th round had been concluded on Saturday morning, the main parties had effectively run out of viable options to put to one another and thanks to their blank vote/abstention strategy, the nominees that were put forward by the minor parties were never going to get anywhere either. However, with Matarella having yet again topped the poll, this time with 387 votes, it was becoming increasingly clear that despite all the to-ing and fro-ing Parliament had actually spoken: it was Matarella or no one. And the latter was plainly unacceptable, so…
The stumbling block was, of course, that Matarella hadn’t wanted to take part in the race in the first place. So Prime Minister Draghi (who after all the brouhaha at the start, incidentally, never received more than 5 votes in any given round) eventually asked Matarella to allow his name to go forward to the next round of voting ‘for the good and the stability of the nation’. And later on Saturday, a delegation representing all the parliamentary groups trooped off to the Palazzo Quirinale to make the same request. Matarella duly bowed to pressure, allowed his name to go forward, and on Saturday evening, having secured 759 votes in the 8th round of voting, the outgoing President who hadn’t wanted to be President again was duly voted back in as President. Don’t you just love Italian politics!
So after several weeks of bickering, in-fighting, horse-trading and arm-twisting and eight rounds of voting, blank voting and non-voting, the country is right back where it started with the über-competent Mario Draghi still Prime Minister and the pragmatic Sergio Matarella still President. Only it isn’t quite back where it started. All the wrangling between the centre-left and the centre-right has revealed worrying fissures in the coalition which Draghi is going to have to work hard to repair. And the last-minute decision to back Matarella has also caused a serious rift between the two main hard-right parties which may prove significant in the general election that is due in spring 2023 – but may, of course, happen sooner if Draghi fails to keep the coalition together. Just on the basis of this everyday story of Italian politics, though, there is little doubt that there is a lot more turbulent water to pass under the political bridge before then. Meaning that we really are right back where we started from.