Can Europe Make It?

Italy's shy president?

Matteo Renzi has won the battle to have his first choice candidate elected as Italy's new President of the Republic. But is Sergio Mattarella really Italy's "shy President"?

Michele Barbero
6 February 2015

Sergio Mattarella. Flickr/Politica Italia. Some rights reserved.

If one had to pick the moment, in Italy’s public life, that best exemplifies the nation's way of politics, then the election of a new President of the Republic would probably be the first choice.

Such a political event can easily switch from solemn, to comic, to tragic; and its uncertain outcome is determined by frantic weeks of informal meetings, well-planned tactics and exhausting face-offs.

The stakes are high for the politicians involved. In 2013, failure to build consensus within his party over a suitable candidate cost Pierluigi Bersani the leadership of the Democrats (PD), paving the way for Matteo Renzi. And indeed the voting procedure, in which MPs, senators and regional representatives secretly write down the name of whatever person they would like to see elected, seems expressly designed to facilitate political betrayal. Voters are supposed to follow their leaders’ instructions; though whether they will do it or not usually remains a big question mark until the very end.

That is why the election of Sergio Mattarella as the new President of the Republic will be remembered first and foremost as one of PM Matteo Renzi’s most glorious personal victories.

With a brilliant political manoeuvre, the 40-year-old premier found in Mattarella the perfect candidate to unite his riotous party and provoke a breakdown among the centre-right.

Mattarella spent the past few years serving as a judge in the Constitutional Court. He is a moderate, with a past in the progressive wing of the ancient Christian Democracy. His brother, Piersanti, was murdered by the mafia in 1980, when he was governor of Sicily. By choosing a candidate with such background, Renzi was able to present himself as a defender of national cohesion. And indeed Mattarella received wide support across the political spectrum, from Nichi Vendola's radical left to the centre, including the various components of the Democratic Party.

But if Mattarella, with his high profile and sober attitude, can easily come across as a perfectly balanced figure that no political force could credibly reject, he is also no stranger to quarrels with centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi. In 1990, he resigned from a ministerial job after a law on broadcasting was passed that many saw as excessively favourable to the mogul's media empire. Years later, he dismissed as an “irrational nightmare” the idea of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia becoming part of the European People's Party.

Episodes like these were enough for the tycoon to decide to take a position against the former Christian Democrat's candidature for President of the Republic. Berlusconi decided to bluff: he refused to give his support to Mattarella (although ultimately adopting the mild approach of the “blank ballot", that is ordering his men not to write any alternative name on the voting sheet), and challenged Renzi to go ahead without Forza Italia.

But the gamble failed: Renzi stuck to his choice, most of the political spectrum backed him and the centre-right crumbled to pieces. The infamous "franc-tireurs”, who in 2013 brought the then PD leader to his knees, this time caused widespread damage in Forza Italia’s ranks. It has been calculated that dozens of party representatives (out of 142) may have actually voted for Mattarella, ignoring Berlusconi’s instructions.

To give you an idea of what the atmosphere is like within the party, a couple of days after the vote a list of alleged “traitors” started circulating, based on the amount of time spent by each voter in the electoral booth and on the position of their feet as it could be seen from the outside - one has to stop for a few seconds to write down a name: therefore, the more the time spent in the booth, the bigger the suspicion.

This election will thus go down in history as Berlusconi's last attempt to claim an equal footing with Renzi – with whom he informally agreed to cooperate in order to carry out a series of reforms, starting from a new electoral law. He now finds himself battered, not even able to fully control his own party.

Amid all this “chess playing”, the question of what kind of president the new head of state will be doesn't always receive the attention that it deserves. In the past few days, several analysts have stressed that Renzi chose Mattarella not only for his moral profile, but also for his demure and reserved nature. The PM, it is argued, wanted first and foremost to avoid the risk of being outshined, after years of political crisis have made the president's role more pivotal than ever before.

But as previous elections show, it is the men of mild temperament that often become the Republic's most determined and charismatic guides. As for Mattarella, his inaugural address to the Parliament, while not devoid of a typically “democristian” rhetoric, did contain signs of a strong personality and of a precise vision on what the right path for the country is.

Implicitly referring to Grillo's Five Star Movement, he welcomed the presence in the legislature of so many young parlamentarians, who represent, “with their critical thinking and even their indignation, the wish for change”; but he asked them to “give a positive contribution to our being a real national community, without ever forgetting the essence of the parliamentary mandate”.

In separate excerpts, Mattarella also expressed his friendship “to the numerous foreign communities who live in our country”; and he defined the European Union as “a frontier of hope”, adding that “the project of a true political union must be revitalised without hesitation”.

In times of raging antipolitics, xenophobia and nationalism, these are no neutral words. 

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