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Italy’s 80 year-old president really wanted to retire. He’s been re-elected amid political stalemate

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The President of the Italian Republic Sergio Mattarella leaves the Sapienza University during his visit to the city on October 18, 2021 in Pisa, Italy.
Laura Lezza | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Ahead of what turned out to be a long and drawn-out presidential election in Italy last week, the country’s incumbent Sergio Mattarella, at 80 years old, had set his eyes on retirement and was reportedly set to move out of the Quirinale, the presidential palace in Italy’s capital, and into a rented apartment in Rome.

After six days of inconclusive voting, however, and with little consensus or compromise among 1,009 Italian lawmakers and regional representatives over who should take over the role, Mattarella was convinced to stay on — in particular, after a personal intervention by Prime Minister Mario Draghi who reportedly told Mattarella that Italy needed him — ahead of the eighth round of voting on Saturday.

In that round, Mattarella gained 759 votes, far more than the simple majority of 505 votes needed to be cast by Italy’s “Grand Electors,” with a prolonged applause in Parliament as the result was announced.

After accepting his new mandate, Mattarella — who has previously (and repeatedly) expressed a desire to retire from the largely ceremonial role, which carries a seven-year term in office — said he was obliged to put the good of the country first.

“The difficult days we have gone through for this election of the President of the Republic, in the middle of the grave emergency that we are still going through, in terms of health, in terms of the economy, and in terms of society, call for a sense of responsibility and respect for the decision made by the parliament,” Mattarella said on Saturday evening.

“These conditions require that one doesn’t step away from the duties to which one is called upon. And naturally these must have prevalence over other considerations and other personal prospects with the commitment to interpret the expectations and the hopes of our fellow citizens.”

Ripples of uncertainty

Political analysts and economists agree that Mattarella’s re-election guarantees some short-term stability in Italy’s fractured political scene, however the coalition government and Draghi (who had himself expressed a wish to move to the presidential office but did not receive enough votes) have an uphill battle ahead with a series of reforms needed in order to unlock European recovery funds.

“The presidential election result should in principle offer the maximum degree of continuity with respect to the recent past, at least in the short run. The well-established relationship between President Mattarella and PM Draghi should guarantee a friction-less resumption of the government activity, with a confirmed focus on the fight of the Covid-19 pandemic and, increasingly, on the implementation of investments and reforms foreseen by the recovery plan,” Paolo Pizzoli, senior economist for Italy and Greece at ING, said in a research note Monday.

ING’s house view remained, Pizzoli said, that the risk of a government crisis will be low and that the government of national unity led by Draghi should survive until the next general election which is due in early 2023.

Enrico Letta, Italian Senator Pier Ferdinando Casini and members of the Italian Parliament stand to applaud Sergio Mattarella (unseen) after a quorum was reached during the sixth voting day for the election of the new Italian President, at the Chamber of Deputies, on January 29, 2022 in Rome, Italy.
Antonio Masiello | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Still, he added that the medium-term political picture is more uncertain with frictions in both the right of the political spectrum (which is dominated by the Lega party, led by Matteo Salvini, but also featuring Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the more right-wing Fratelli d’Italia) and center, dominated by the Five Star Movement (M5S or 5SM) and Democratic Party (PD).

“The Italian medium-term political picture will likely be subject to higher uncertainty, in our view. The political ripples started by the presidential election saga will likely reach both the League and the 5SM, currently part of the national unity alliance. The centre-right emerges extremely divided from the vote, and Salvini’s leadership of the coalition could be subject to scrutiny,” Pizzoli noted.

He believed the Lega party might undergo increasing pressures, “torn between a centrist pull, with Forza Italia and its allies already re-affirming their pro-European and Atlantic stances, and the fear of losing voters to [Giorgia] Meloni’s right-wing Fratelli d’Italia, firm in their opposition to the government (and to Mattarella’s confirmation).” On the center-left front, Pizzoli added, “the experiment of a structured PD-5SM alliance will be hardly reinforced by the presidential election week.”

“In a year’s time, when the next parliamentary elections will be held, the party roster might have changed substantially. In such volatile times, opinion polls might … prove of little guidance to gauge the actual political risk,” he noted.

Italy’s political fragility

While political analysts believe that the current government of national unity, which is made up of technocrats and politicians from parties on all sides of the political spectrum (with the notable absence of the Fratelli d’Italia party), can limp on until next year’s election, the presidential vote “has laid bare the fragility of Italian politics and exposed deep divisions within the governing coalition,” according to Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo Intelligence.

He said in a note Saturday evening that “while at first sight this [vote] may suggest that the status quo has prevailed, the reality is that the overall political backdrop has become less supportive for the executive led by Draghi, which is facing a daunting task in the year or so left before the next general election.”

The whole political system, and especially the six parties part of the ruling coalition, have miserably failed the presidential election test, Piccoli believed.

“There is a tangible risk that within the ruling majority infighting will become more pronounced in the months ahead as the fruitless and chaotic efforts to replace Mattarella have left deep scars on the parties and their leaders. The whole presidential saga has highlighted that trust within the ruling coalition has been broken and rebuilding it with only a year left before the next election will be a near-impossible job.”

The Italian Premier Mario Draghi attends the end of year press conference.
Mondadori Portfolio | Mondadori Portfolio | Getty Images

He expected there to be a realignment of political allegiances both within individual parties and between political alliances.

“While the rightist bloc (League, Forza Italia and FdI) is now in meltdown, it is unclear for how long the entente between the Democratic Party (PD) and the Five Star Movement (M5S) will last. Against this fluid background, Draghi now has to pick up the pieces and try to recompose the deep differences emerged within the ruling coalition over the past week. Meanwhile, his standing has been affected too. Draghi (clumsily) signaled he was interested in the presidential job and ended up facing a veto by three of the parties that back his executive,” he noted.

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