Italy: the equivocal calm between storms

After several candidates failed to be elected to the presidency, the Italian parliament gave an unprecedented second mandate to Giorgio Napolitano, the 87-year-old incumbent. Will this be enough to get Italy out of its political jam?

James Walston
23 April 2013
Newly re-elected Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. Demotix/eidon photographers. All rights reserved.

Newly re-elected Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. Demotix/eidon photographers. All rights reserved.

For a brief moment, the helter-skelter is in a trough, waiting for the next climb to be followed inevitably by another downward hurtle.

Desperate after having failed to persuade the parliament to elect their candidates of choice to the Italian presidency, on Saturday Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) and the other traditional parties went up the Hill (the President’s palace on the Quirinal hill is known as “Il Colle” or “the highest hill in Rome”) to beg Giorgio Napolitano, the current, and widely respected, 87-year-old president, to get them out of the mess. Most accounts confirm that it was Bersani who convinced Napolitano - by telling him that no one else could guarantee a united PD vote. After the two very theatrical failures of Thursday and Friday, the party and more importantly, the country could not afford another open wound and inconclusive ballot. 

Silvio Berlusconi and the People of Freedom (PdL) added their support along with the centrist Mario Monti (Civic Choice, SC) and even the Northern League’s (LN) Roberto Maroni. Only the PD’s ally, Nichi Vendola’s Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL) decided to vote for the Five Star Movement (M5S)’s candidate Stefano Rodotà.

After lunch, Napolitano said that he accepted the candidature and by late afternoon, the count confirmed that Napolitano had won 738 out of 997 votes. This is the first time that an Italian president has been re-elected. There is no constitutional ban on a second term but none of Napolitano’s ten predecessors had deployed the option, so that most constitutionalists presumed that there was an unwritten amendment prohibiting a second term. 

He was sworn in on Monday and has already promised to set his own terms for his second presidency – but most urgently, he needs to get Italy out of the political deadlock that resulted from the last elections in February. Most likely he will set a time limit and make it very clear that the condition for him to stay on is the investiture of a reliable government. He has already warned the parliament - threatening to resign if the political parties showed no will to cooperate: "If I again face deafness - as in the past - I will not hesitate to take conclusions in front of the nation." But whatever conditions he does put on himself and the politicians, they will be self-imposed. For the moment, the only thing that is certain is that Napolitano has a seven year mandate, limited only by the constitution.

After the result, there was exultation in the centre-right, as Napolitano has been very supportive of Berlusconi both with regard to his prosecutions and to the idea of a PdL-PD coalition. There was quiet satisfaction from Monti and relief from Bersani. The left of the PD, SEL, and of course Grillo and the M5S, were furious.

Grillo’s immediate reaction was to call the vote a “coup”, saying that he was coming to Rome and hoped for a million people on the streets when he arrived. In contrast, his own supporters were forced to backtrack on the leader and admit that a regular vote in Parliament was hardly a coup d’état. Broad criticism of the phrase “march on Rome”, with its explicit fascist association, forced him to delay his arrival and cancel the night time demonstration. The M5S candidate, Stefano Rodotà, is a lawyer, former member of Parliament and former head of a public watchdog agency - a man of the left; not surprisingly he condemned Grillo’s position clearly, quickly and forcefully.

But backslash against the “coup” and the “march on Rome” were only slight hiccoughs in Grillo’s continuing success. He could not have hoped for more than an alliance between the centre-right and a terminally fractured centre-left. The M5S could take a large portion of very disappointed PD voters. The only obstacle is that the more the M5S people come under the media spotlight, the more obvious their lack of ability and coherence becomes – charming naiveté at first, but not convincing enough to vote for them. So there is a sort of race between the grillinis' learning curve and the ability of the PD to reorganise itself. Where these two curves are when the next elections take place will be essential in determine their outcome.

The other winner is of course Berlusconi.

He has kept his cool most of the time – it was curious though that while Grillo cried foul, Berlusconi said on Friday that if former Italian PM and President of the European Commission Romano Prodi (who was proposed as a compromise candidate by the PD) were to be elected it would have been “undemocratic” and he and the PdL would have taken to the streets; a bit rich coming from the man who had designed the present electoral system which should have led to a Prodi victory. 

Either way, in this case the PD was more than capable of shooting itself in the foot, and Berlusconi did not have to take to the streets. A fortnight ago, a satirical paper had the cartoon of Berlusconi sitting on a river bank, waiting. It was a prescient drawing; the corpses of Bersani, Prodi and the PD have floated past. More will follow. He has been assured of a friendly presence in the Quirinale and in all probability, a government in which the PdL plays a major part. If there are early elections, polls suggest that the PdL would be the winner. No wonder Berlusconi was smiling.

The new government will most likely be a “political” one, led by a party person, not a technocrat. Its likely platform will be the report produced by Napolitano’s committee of “ten wise men”, a composite of contradictory issues put together by PD, PdL and SC. The names that are being put forward are Giuliano Amato, the eternal bridge builder, part politician, part technocrat, or Bersani’s deputy, Enrico Letta, sufficiently anodyne not to offend the PdL. Whoever it is he will have to deal with the same economic issues as before and the growing rejection of the political system. Despite what some might like to think, the fact that 74 percent of grand electors voted for Napolitano doesn't mean that three quarters of Italy support a PD-PdL coalition.

The helter-skelter ride is beginning again.

This article has previously been published on the author's blog, Italian Politics with Walston. Thanks go to the author for allowing us to reproduce it here.

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