Italian President Sergio Mattarella re-elected for second term, ending successor row

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Saturday, January 29, 2022

Sergio Mattarella on December 30, 2021.
Image: Quirinale.

The incumbent President of Italy Sergio Mattarella was re-elected for a second seven-year term yesterday in the eighth round of voting for a potential successor.

Aged 80, Mattarella repeatedly expressed his desire to leave the position, including renting an apartment in Rome in anticipation of a move from the presidential Quirinal Palace (Quirinale). However, he relented after key figures, including Prime Minister Mario Draghi, urged him to stay on for the "stability" of the Republic. His first term was set to expire on February 3.

Parliamentarians who went to Quirinale to ask him to remain quoted Mattarella as saying "I had other plans, but if needed, I am at your disposition". Seven rounds of fruitless voting to determine a successor involved an electoral college of 1009 "grand electors". They comprise 321 Senators, 630 Members of the Chamber of Deputies (MPs) and 58 regional delegates.

Sergio Mattarella (left) and Mario Draghi (right) on February 3, 2021.
Image: President of Italy.

Reuters characterised the Parliament's failure to rally around a compromise candidate as leaving "deep scars, with potentially dangerous repercussions for political stability" in the Draghi-led party coalition. Reuters added there was "loud and prolonged applause" in the Chamber of Deputies when Mattarella did break the two-thirds majority needed to secure re-election. He won with a total of 759 votes.

Party leaders' statements issued yesterday were generally in favour of Mattarella staying in power. Matteo Salvini, leader of anti-migrant party Lega per Salvini Premier, said "Italians don't deserve more days of confusion". He confirmed "President Mattarella at the Quirinale and Draghi at the government". Draghi was himself a candidate who was "tipped for the job" according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). He said after the election it was "splendid news for Italians" and he was "grateful to the President for his decision to go along with the extremely strong will of Parliament".

Salvini, who Euronews says is eyeing the role of Prime Minister, expressed his desire for Mattarella to continue serving yesterday evening. "We think that it isn't serious any more to continue with 'no's' and cross vetoes", he said. He thus believed the time was right to "tell the president to reconsider". None of the candidates he endorsed received the requisite majority of votes after being "rejected by the left". Mattarella also gained post-election support in messages by Enrico Letta, who heads the centre-left Democratic Party and Minister of Health Roberto Speranza, who leads social democracy party Article One.

Former Prime Minister, president of centre-right party Forza Italia and presidential candidate Silvio Berlusconi also endorsed Mattarella, around whom he said "[u]nity today can only be found".

However, the decision was sharply criticised by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right opposition party Brothers of Italy. Meloni said in a statement "Parliament has shown it is not fit for Italians". Accusing allies of "bartering away" the role of the presidency, she called for the bloc to be "re-founded". Meloni tweeted last evening "I would be surprised if #Mattarella agreed to be re-elected after having repeatedly rejected this hypothesis." She instead favoured Draghi to take the office. This course would leave the Prime Minister's seat vacant and potentially invoke early elections.

Sergio Mattarella (left) and Giuseppe Conte (right) on August 20, 2019.
Image: President of Italy.

Giuseppe Conte, leader of Parliament's largest party the populist Five Star Movement told reporters "Mattarella is the guarantor of everybody, impartial, authoritative". Conte resigned as Prime Minister in 2021 over his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Though mostly ceremonial, the President is charged with appointing the Prime Minister and dissolving Parliament, which the BBC says means the office "takes on great power during times of political crisis". This comes in the context of intense fragmentation in Italian politics that means governments typically survive about a year.

Mattarella was praised for his role in ending the brief 2021 Italian government crisis by appointing the broad coalition of parties headed by Draghi. Draghi, an independent who was president of the European Central Bank during the European debt crisis, was tasked to remedy the worst economic disaster Italy has faced in decades. Wolfango Piccoli of advisory firm Teneo told Reuters: "The overall political backdrop has become less supportive for Draghi's government, which is facing a daunting task in the year or so left before the next general election."

BBC Rome correspondent Mark Lowen wrote parliamentarians' choice to re-elect a hesitant incumbent would "be seen by critics as an embarrassing show of Italy's political divisions". There were calls for Italy to elect its first female president or someone younger (although candidates must be over 50). Their failure to do so was thus symbolic of "the lack of imagination of [Italian] MPs to think beyond the status quo." Support for Mattarella was reportedly the only thing most MPs agreed on, Forza Italia national co-ordinator Antonio Tajani said in a BBC interview.

Mattarella as MP for Sicily in 1994.
Image: Camera dei deputati.

Mattarella, seen as a traditional but quiet and unassuming President according to Reuters, was first elected in 2015. He had previously served as Minister of Public Education, Minister of Defence, Deputy Prime Minister and judge of the Constitutional Court. He additionally served as MP for two decades. His father helped found the Christian Democracy party, while his brother Piersanti Mattarella served as President of Sicily before being assassinated in 1980.

Other candidates for the post indicated by the AFP last week included former Prime Ministers Giuliano Amato and Paolo Gentiloni and former Chamber of Deputies President Pier Ferdinando Casini. Female candidates included current and former Ministers of Justice Marta Cartabia and Paola Severino and Senate President Elisabetta Casellati.