Europe

Italian Lawmakers Say They Have Agreed to Re-Elect Sergio Mattarella as President

ROME — After noxious and chaotic back-room negotiations, Italian lawmakers said on Saturday that they had reached a consensus to keep the status quo in place and would ask the country’s current president, Sergio Mattarella, to serve another seven-year term.

The Italian Parliament is expected to re-elect Mr. Mattarella later Saturday, in the sixth day of secret votes that have revealed the fractious politics and crumbling alliances just beneath the surface of Italy’s national unity government.

In Italy’s unpredictable politics, nothing is certain until the ballots are officially counted, and Mr. Mattarella, at 80, has been reluctant to serve again. But a week of inconclusive voting had already revealed the inability of the different political interests within the governing coalition to rally around a new candidate.

The apparent choice of Mr. Mattarella essentially amounted to a punt — to avoid early elections and to prolong Italy’s current period of stability under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who himself had coveted the job.

But in a private meeting on Saturday morning, Mr. Draghi personally asked Mr. Mattarella to consider staying on because the political chaos over the inconclusive ballots had begun to suck in institutional figures, like the president of the Senate and the head of the Secret Service, two prominent women who were proposed as candidates only to be roundly rejected and tarnished.

Mr. Draghi returned from the meeting and then called the governing coalition’s party leaders to try to broker a deal, according to an official in Mr. Draghi’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

By leaving Mr. Draghi in place, the lawmakers hoped to avert the political chaos of early elections that his departure may have encouraged. The choice of Mr. Mattarella instead increased the likelihood that Mr. Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, would continue to lead the unity government.

Having Mr. Draghi’s hand on day-to-day affairs was certain to calm international markets as well as the European Union’s leadership in Brussels, which is counting on Italy to effectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic recovery funds and demonstrate the wisdom of the bloc’s experiment in collective debt.

Mario Draghi, left, at the Quirinal Palace in Rome in February 2021.Credit…Francesco Ammendola/Presidential Palace, via Reuters

Mr. Draghi’s supporters would have preferred that he be elected president, hoping that his steadying influence, even in the often ceremonial role of the presidency, would provide Italy stability beyond the country’s next scheduled elections, in 2023.

But for them, the re-election of Mr. Mattarella amounts to the second-best option because it freezes the current political situation in place and leaves open the possibility that Mr. Draghi could still someday ascend to the Quirinal Palace, the home of presidents and the past home of popes.

While Mr. Draghi is expected to stay on as prime minister for the months ahead, speculation is rife that Mr. Mattarella would resign early from his second term as president and open the way for Italy’s next Parliament to elect Mr. Draghi at a less politically delicate time. The official in Mr. Draghi’s office said Mr. Draghi and Mr. Mattarella did not discuss anything of the sort on Saturday morning.

Mr. Mattarella “understands that this is a critical time for Italy,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, an expert in the Italian political system at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “And that the status quo needs to be kept.”

But months can be an eternity in Italy’s volatile politics. Most experts agree that as the elections get closer, the political ambitions and gamesmanship of the opposing political parties in the government will make it increasingly hard for the government to act, to pass new legislation, or even to stay together.

And there is no guarantee that Mr. Mattarella would resign, or if he did, that the new Parliament would be filled with electors partial to Mr. Draghi.

Mr. Mattarella was first elected in 2015 when he was championed by the prime minister at the time, Matteo Renzi, and he enjoyed broad support across the political spectrum. Born in Palermo, Sicily, he is the younger brother of Piersanti Mattarella, whom the mafia assassinated in 1980 during his term as Sicily’s governor.

Sergio Mattarella, a reserved lawyer who taught parliamentary law in Palermo, was elected to Parliament in 1983 as a member of the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated postwar Italy until it imploded after a series of bribery scandals in the early 1990s. He served in Parliament until 2008, holding a number of high-level government posts under the Christian Democrats and in later center-left governments. In 2011, he was elected by Parliament to Italy’s Constitutional Court.

As president, the grandfatherly Mr. Mattarella, with his snow-white hair and quiet style, has demonstrated moral authority in his ceremonial role.

But he has also presided with a firm hand over a chaotic seven years in which the country swung wildly from the left to the right and elected among the most populist and anti-European Parliaments in Europe before transforming once again into an establishment bedrock under Mr. Draghi, whom Mr. Mattarella personally brought in to end a government crisis last year.

After populists scored large victories in the 2018 elections, Mr. Mattarella prevented from taking power a government that he considered in violation of the Italian Constitution for its anti-European character, resulting in leaders of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement calling for his impeachment. It is a mark of how much Italian politics has moderated around Mr. Draghi that those same leaders today urged their followers to vote for Mr. Mattarella. But many of them had a strong personal interest in stability, as early elections were likely to cost many of them their jobs and pensions.

Counting votes on Saturday at Parliament in Rome.Credit…Pool photo by Roberto Monaldo

Mr. Mattarella repeatedly made it clear that he did not want to stay in the job and had moved his things to a new apartment in Rome. Memes swapped among Italian politicians and reporters this week showed Mr. Mattarella answering the phone and pretending he was not home, or tying sheets together to sneak out of a window of the presidential palace. After news of his selection became public, Italian commentators jokingly expressed solidarity with his plight of having to pack and unpack boxes.

But over a week of disastrous negotiations that highlighted the lack of cohesion across the political spectrum, but especially in the country’s center right, which came into the election hoping to flex its muscles but left weak and splintered, he emerged as the only name anyone could agree on.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party who had hoped the election would act as a show of force for the center right and his role as its de facto leader, exited the week much weaker and politically bloodied. All of his proposed candidates, and there were many, failed to gain traction.

“We’ll ask Mattarella to stay,” he said Saturday. “And like this, the team stays as it is. Draghi remains at Palazzo Chigi” in his office of prime minister.

Silvio Berlusconi, who had himself hoped to become president before withdrawing his candidacy shortly before voting began, had put a veto on Mr. Draghi becoming president because it could endanger the government. Mr. Berlusconi had a “long and cordial” phone call with Mr. Mattarella “ensuring him our fullest support,” according to Antonio Tajani, a leader of Mr. Berlusconi’s political party, Forza Italia. Mr. Tajani said he was very satisfied with the choice of Mr. Mattarella.

The centrist Italia Viva party, led by Mr. Renzi, applauded the choice of Mr. Mattarella. “We voted for him then and today we vote for him again enthusiastically,” the group said on Twitter.

If Mr. Mattarella is the winner of the week’s voting, and Mr. Draghi remains a player and a potential president for Italy, the election had its fair share of casualties, too. While the Democratic Party got its chosen candidate, the center right emerged seeming battered and inept. Some of its biggest power players talked about resigning. The contempt and diverging interests among the nominal allies spilled into view.

Mr. Mattarella on Saturday outside the Quirinal Palace.Credit…Massimo Percossi/EPA, via Shutterstock

For days, the competing political parties engaged in all sorts of tactics to pursue their narrow interests, gain the upper hand or defend against partisan candidates. They cast blank ballots and floated symbolic candidates used to measure the compactness of their voting blocs. They timed their own voters to make sure they were not writing down names on blank ballots. They publicly offered what they called ideal, real, credible candidates, but in reality, they meant to burn those candidacies by merely articulating the syllables of their names.

On Thursday, the threshold for victory went down to 505 votes, an absolute majority, and tensions increased.

On Friday, the number of votes increased to two a day, and Mr. Salvini,tried to force a candidacy of a political ally, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, the president of the Senate, despite threats from liberals and his nominal partners in the national unity coalition that it would prompt the collapse of the government.

Her candidacy came up far short and did not even succeed in winning all of the votes of the center-right bloc. Momentum began to move toward Mr. Mattarella, but on Friday night, desperate politicians, including the embittered former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, whom Mr. Mattarella had replaced with Mr. Draghi, expressed backing for a generic female candidate. The move was roundly interpreted as a last-ditch power tactic and merely claimed new political casualties.

But on Saturday, all of those gambits seemed to end and the members of the national unity government decided to keep things exactly how they were, with Mr. Mattarella as president and Mr. Draghi as prime minister. But everything also seemed different. The election had taken a toll.

The election, Enrico Letta, the leader of the Democratic Party, told reporters on Saturday, showed “a political system that is blocked.” He added, “This isn’t working.”

Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.

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