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Italy ends voting deadlock by re-electing Sergio Mattarella as president, keeping Mario Draghi as prime minister

Mario Draghi (R), outgoing President of the European Central Bank (ECB) shakes hands with Italian President Sergio Mattarella at a handing over ceremony to his successor Christine Lagarde in Frankfurt am Main, western Germany on Oct. 28, 2019.SILAS STEIN/AFP/Getty Images

Six days of voting filled with squabbling, confusion and backroom manoeuvring left the leadership of the Italian government exactly where it was before this week’s presidential election.

President Sergio Mattarella, the 80-year-old head of state, was re-elected Saturday night to a new term he did not want, but that he seemed almost certain to accept in order to avoid political chaos.

He was due to end his seven-year mandate on Feb. 3, and he gave every indication that he wanted to retire. He had reportedly signed a lease on a modest Rome apartment in preparation for moving out of the Quirinale Palace – the vast, 1,200-room presidential residence in Rome.

Mario Draghi, the unelected Prime Minister who coveted Mr. Mattarella’s job, failed to receive cross-party endorsement for his own presidential bid, partly because many parties wanted him to remain in his current job. He will stay on as head of government.

But how long the status quo will last is unknown. The unruly election process, during which more than 1,000 parliamentarians and a few regional representatives voted in eight secret ballots beginning on Monday, left deep divisions among the main centre-right and centre-left parties, raising questions about the durability of the government’s cross-party unity.

Political analyst Francesco Galietti, chief executive of Rome-based Policy Sonar, said in a Saturday note that the status quo does not necessarily mean stability.

“Everyone is assuming that, with Mattarella once again as President, and Draghi as Prime Minister, the situation will remain as is,” he said. “But that is probably not so straightforward. We need to understand whether the key ingredient of Draghi’s government, a broad cross-partisan majority, will still be there in a few days.”

Mr. Mattarella, a Sicilian lawyer whose older brother was assassinated by the Mafia in 1980, is a widely respected figure known for his calm, dignified – yet decisive – style. The role of Italian presidents is largely ceremonial, but becomes crucial in times of crisis. They can appoint prime ministers and approve or veto cabinet ministers, as Mr. Mattarella did in 2018, when he vetoed the appointment of anti-European populist Paolo Savona as minister of finance and economy.

Mr. Mattarella emerged as the most acceptable compromise candidate late in the week, after several candidates thrust forward by parties on the left and the right gained no traction.

Some of them were unlikely, long-shot names. One was the head of the Italian secret service. Another was Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time former prime minister who is infamous for his “bunga bunga” sex parties and tax fraud conviction. Initially supported by some of the main parties on the right, he withdrew his candidacy just before the election started, but still received some votes.

On Saturday morning, Mr. Draghi, apparently realizing that the string of inconclusive ballots was turning into a national and international embarrassment, reportedly asked Mr. Mattarella to stay on and requested that the parties in his unity government broker a deal to endorse him. On the seventh ballot, on Saturday morning, Mr. Mattarella was nearing re-election, winning 387 votes, well ahead of the rest of the pack and most of the way to the required 505-vote simple majority. On the eighth and final vote, he easily surpassed the hurdle.

Keeping Mr. Mattarella and Mr. Draghi in place allows Italy to avoid an early election – the current parliament is due to expire by mid-2023 – that most of the parties are unprepared for, and that could cost many parliamentarians their jobs and pensions. The status quo theoretically prolongs the stability that had characterized Mr. Draghi’s government since Mr. Mattarella appointed him Prime Minister a year ago.

Mr. Draghi is the former president of the European Central Bank and is widely credited with saving the euro from ruin during the debt crisis a decade ago, when Greece almost left the common currency and Italy was on the verge of being unable to fund itself in the sovereign debt markets. In the first year of the pandemic, when Italy was the first in Europe to bear the brunt of COVID-19, Mr. Draghi, now 74, was in retirement and not contemplating another demanding, high-profile career.

But when the government of Giuseppe Conte collapsed in the middle of the pandemic, Mr. Mattarella asked Mr. Draghi to form a unity government. He did – and, crucially, finished negotiating a pandemic relief package with the European Union that will see Italy, the EU’s third-largest economy, conditionally receive about 200-billion euros. Under Mr. Draghi, Italy has had one of the highest vaccination rates in the world, and its economy has bounced back from its 2020 lows.

Matteo Renzi, a former prime minister who leads Italia Viva, a small centrist party, said on Saturday that keeping Mr. Mattarella as President and Mr. Draghi as Prime Minister was “the only way to leave Italy safe from the outlandish madness and lack of political direction.”

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League party, the biggest party on the centre-right, endorsed Mr. Mattarella late in the game, after several of the party’s preferred candidates failed to gain traction, destroying the League’s attempted show of force. “Italians do not deserve any more days of confusion,” he said as he asked Mr. Mattarella to “make a sacrifice” for the country.

The prospect of Mr. Draghi staying as Prime Minister will please international investors, Italian business leaders and pro-EU and pro-euro technocrats in Brussels. But there is little doubt that he will step down when the next election is called. If Mr. Mattarella leaves before his second term is finished, as did his predecessor, Giorgio Napolitano, Mr. Draghi could get a second shot at the presidency.

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