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ROME – Italy’s fragile political balance is in flux.
The country is fast approaching its January 24 deadline, when its parliament must begin voting to choose a new president – a figure who hovers above daily politics and has power beyond the mandate to appoint prime ministers, the head of the Italian government.
But the country’s political class cannot agree on who this person should be.
Elections are an opaque process, involving secret balloting historically through secret deals between top lawmakers. However, political leaders are struggling to strike those deals and persuade their party members to stand up.
While the left has dominated the presidency for decades, the right-wing coalition now has more votes, which means it must be able to make decisions. But Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old prime minister who has served three times, stymied any meaningful negotiations by launching a clandestine campaign for the job, breaking with tradition as he seeks one last comeback.
Then there is Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose international appeal will serve Italy as president. But within parliament, where self-interest and self-interest may trump ideals, opposition is growing over concerns that moving Draghi from prime minister to president could cause the ruling coalition to collapse, leading to snap elections. A recent poll of parliamentarians showed that only one in three would be willing to vote for Draghi.
Even the tacit admission by Draghi that he could become president weakens the ruling majority’s cohesion and ability to act.
The result is a country once again plunged toward political dysfunction, as the process exposes the divisions that have hobbled Italian politics before Draghi, an out-of-political banker, took power in February 2021 to run a government of national unity. And any political uncertainty that fuels early elections could threaten Italy’s ability to adopt the reforms demanded by the European Union and needed for the country to secure critical funds to recover from the pandemic.
“Parties are already divided by factions and it is difficult for leaders to maintain their cohesion,” said Francesco Clemente, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Perugia. He added that the presidential race “makes these divisions more visible because leaders cannot coerce their candidates.”
Italian presidents serve a seven-year term and traditionally do not seek re-election. Incumbent President Sergio Mattarella has indicated that he will follow tradition and step down after the January elections, despite his desires in some corners to remain as a stabilizing force.
The vacancy that now awaits us is shaking up the political landscape, a prospect that makes Italy’s ideological camps vying for positions.
“A fundamental lack of trust prevails across the entire political system, including among party leaders, within existing alliances and within each political party,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a political risk specialist at consultancy Teneo.
The turmoil has raised the possibility that Draghi’s ruling coalition – whether the prime minister becomes president or not – could collapse and trigger snap elections.
If that happens, the 5-star anti-establishment movement will likely have the most to lose. After the collapse of a 5-star-led coalition government in early 2021, leading to the rise of Draghi, the political group has struggled through an identity crisis as it attempts to restart under a new leader, former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
5-star popularity in the polls has collapsed since the 2018 election and the legislature faces planned cuts in the next election, meaning that two out of three MPs are not expected to survive the next vote – and many lawmakers, especially those who don’t. We have no professional jobs to return to, desperate to fend off an election until the next vote scheduled in 2023.
“Everyone’s just trying to survive,” an insider told 5Star. “The action is naturally chaotic but now it’s a dog-eating game, a jungle.”
In an effort to polish the progressive 5-star credentials, Conte has repeatedly said that the next president must be a woman, a balance with a list of candidates who are largely pale, male and destitute, or former prime ministers.
However, not everyone in his party agreed on this. Blatantly ignoring Conte’s signals, a 5-star group of lawmakers is pushing for Mattarella to stay for another term, while keeping Draghi as prime minister.
While Mattarella has repeatedly indicated that he does not want to stay, his supporters hope he may agree in the national interest if successive votes fail to choose a candidate and consensus builds around the incumbent president.
The dispute opened a debate about whether Conte had lost power within his movement.
“The truth is that neither Conte nor the 5-star squad control anything anymore,” former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of Italy’s centrist party Viva, wrote in his email newsletter.
Someone close to Conte insisted he was still in the driver’s seat. The source said that the talks are still in their early stages: “The internal debate did not raise questions about these goals and undermine confidence in the leader.”
The center-left Democratic Party is another group in flux in the presidential race.
The party’s leader, Enrico Letta, initially endorsed Draghi for the presidency. But he could not win over his forces, who feared that Leta would go for early elections in order to oust the deputies chosen under the old system of the party and replace them with his people.
After several Democratic factions made it clear that they favored a second Matarella term, Lita this week changed tack: “Matarella would be the best,” he said.
splits on the right
This isn’t the first time Democrats have struggled to present a united front in the presidential race. In 2015, Democrats officially supported Romano Prodi but abandoned him under the cover of a secret ballot.
Perhaps the right is in a state of greater detachment.
Berlusconi had always nurtured his dream of becoming president, wanting to put behind him the infamous Bunga Bunga sex party scandal and cement his longed-for legacy as an international statesman.
While he is unlikely to be able to gather the votes needed to win, Berlusconi is holding his right-wing coalition partners on a long-standing promise to support him as president.
However, that support – from allies such as Giorgia Meloni, who leads the far-right Brotherhood in Italy, and Matteo Salvini of the Populist League – has been lukewarm. Salvini initially said he would prefer a “center-right defender” to the post but avoided naming Berlusconi that person until Thursday. Meanwhile, Meloni – who would benefit from early elections and thus can support Draghi – said “Plan B and C” is necessary.
The continuing uncertainty makes it difficult for Draghi to govern his difficult coalition. League ministers recently banned requirements for the novel coronavirus vaccine, hobbling Draghi on a topic – pandemic rules – where he previously had significant bandwidth, and a rift between coalition partners forced Draghi to make an embarrassing compromise over new vaccine mandates for people over 50.
With the presidential race heating up, political risk analyst Piccoli said in recent weeks, “Draghi was still ‘capable of firing but not with the same determination we are used to'”, also citing an ‘unambitious budget’ as another example.
Piccoli added that given his potential transition to the presidency, “Draghi cannot now confront the leaders as often as he may need in order to move forward with his agenda.” “He has to make concessions to protect his bid.”
Draghi, at a press conference, insisted that such a “difference of opinion” is “not new or dramatic” and does not reflect any waning authority.
However, at this point in his premiership, it’s only natural that Draghi would be looking for a predicament before things got more difficult. But he is under increasing pressure to stay on as prime minister, with the Omicron variable rising and hospitalizations from COVID rising.
Many lawmakers feel that if Draghi is to become president, they will need to see a credible plan for his successor as prime minister and bring his diverse coalition together until the next elections slated for 2023. So far, that plan has not emerged.
“No one can solve the problem of finding a prime minister to replace Draghi,” said Representative Stefano Secante, a Democrat.
“The average 5-star legislator will only vote for Draghi while ensuring there is no new election,” said the source familiar with 5Star. “But no one can guarantee that.”
If Draghi remains prime minister – perhaps with a reshuffle and a new mandate – an older president may come along who does not serve a full seven-year term, leaving the door open for Draghi to become president in a year or two.
So, once again, the 80-year-old Mattarella could become the classic Italian compromise: slack.