Voting begins in Italy’s ‘key and complicated’ presidential election

Italy's parliament begins voting on Monday for a new president, with prime minister Mario Draghi still tipped as favourite to win - but those opposed say his election risks destabilising the country's post-pandemic recovery.

Could Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi take over as new president? He faces opposition for the risk to the government if he does.
Could Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi take over as new president? He faces opposition for the risk to the government if he does. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the contest on Saturday, but despite continued wrangling over the weekend no clear candidate has yet emerged.

Draghi is facing opposition from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and also Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, who says he should stay where he is.

“It would be dangerous for Italy in a difficult economic time… to reinvent a new government from scratch. It would stop the country for days and days,” Salvini told reporters on Sunday.

READ ALSO: What will happen if PM Mario Draghi becomes Italy’s next president?

But Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said Draghi had been an “extraordinary resource” for Italy and insisted talks would continue, telling Rai television: “Draghi is one of the hypotheses on the table.”

Italy’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but the head of state wields considerable power during political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

The election, a secret ballot conducted over several days by more than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives, is notoriously hard to predict.

Italy’s economy has turned a corner under Prime Minister Mario Draghi but a possible move to the presidency is sparking concern among analysts that the post-pandemic recovery might come to an abrupt halt. Photo: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / POOL / AFP
A ‘key’ election

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief brought in to lead a national unity government one year ago, is widely considered the most eligible candidate.

It was the currently serving president Sergio Mattarella, in fact, who inaugurated Draghi when the previous coalition collapsed.

But many fear his departure as premier could trigger chaos as Italy recovers from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the disparate parties in Draghi’s coalition already in battle mode ahead of next year’s general elections, further instability could put European recovery funds at risk.

EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

“This is a key and very complicated election, because the political parties are weak, they are in an utterly fragmented state,” Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, told AFP.

Italy has a notoriously unstable electoral system and has seen dozens of governments come and go since World War II – with outgoing president Mattarella himself seeing five during his seven-year term.

But Draghi has led a remarkably united government comprising almost all of Italy’s political parties.

Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, has returned to growth following a punishing recession in 2020 sparked by the pandemic.

And Draghi has initiated key reforms demanded in exchange for funds from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery scheme, of which Rome is the main beneficiary, to the tune of almost 200 billion euros ($225 billion).

READ ALSO: How much power does the Italian president actually have?

Many international investors are concerned that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi step down as prime minister.

Others say Draghi would be better placed as president to ensure political stability and good relations with Brussels – particularly should the far right win the next election.

The 74-year-old himself, credited with saving the euro from a debt crisis while ECB chief, hinted last month he is interested in moving to Rome’s Quirinale presidential palace but has since kept his silence.

However, the majority of Italians – 70 percent – have expressed their preference for Draghi to remain as prime minister – not to take over the presidential role.

Just over one in ten – 12 percent – would like him to be elected President of the Republic instead of continuing as Italy’s premier, according to findings of a recent surveyIl fattore Draghi e la politica italiana (The Draghi factor and Italian politics).

And almost one in five – 18 per cent – say he “should not hold either office”.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who could be elected as Italy’s next president?

Former Italian premier Berlusconi is no longer in the running to become president of the Republic. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Now that Berlusconi has pulled out from the race and, should voters fear Draghi’s election could cause the current government to collapse, other potential candidates have a chance to step into the role.

They include former lower house speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, EU commissioner and ex-premier Paolo Gentiloni, former Socialist premier Giuliano Amato, and Justice Minister Marta Cartabia – who if successful, would be the first female president.

Berlusconi’s presidential bid was always a long shot, not least because he remains embroiled in legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties.

He said he was quitting out of a sense of “national responsibility”, but media reports suggested his family were worried about his health.

Berlusconi, who at 85 is plagued by health problems and remains embroiled in legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, was back in hospital on Sunday for what his doctor said were planned, routine checks.

A spokesman confirmed to AFP Monday he spent the night at Milan’s San Raffaele hospital.

Drive-through voting for Covid positive electors

The first round of voting begins at 3pm Rome time on Monday in the lower Chamber of Deputies, with its result expected in the evening.

Voting is in secret, in person and will be slowed by social distancing requirements, with one round a day.

Commentators predict no breakthrough until Thursday, the fourth round, when the threshold for victory falls from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority.

Because of Italy’s high Covid caseload, electors who tested positive or are isolating will be able to use a drive-through voting station set up in the parliament’s car park.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Italy plans to stop ‘revolving door’ between judges and politicians

Italian lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a planned reform aimed at stopping the 'revolving door' between justice and government, as part of wider changes to the country's creaking judicial system.

Italy plans to stop 'revolving door' between judges and politicians

The proposed reform, which still has to be approved by the Italian Senate in the coming weeks, imposes significant limitations on the number of magistrates, prosecutors and judges looking to go into politics – a frequent move in Italy.

Under the submitted changes, a magistrate wishing to stand for election, whether national, regional or local, will not be able to do so in the region where they have worked over the previous three years.

At the end of their mandate, magistrates who have held elective positions will not be able to return to the judiciary – they will be moved to non-jurisdictional posts at, for example, the Court of Auditors or the Supreme Court of Cassation, according to local media reports.

Furthermore, magistrates who have applied for elective positions but have not been successful for at least three years will no longer be able to work in the region where they ran for office. 

The reform is part of a wider programme of changes to Italy’s tortuous judicial system. This is required by the European Commission to unlock billions of euros in the form of post-pandemic recovery funds.

Public perception of the independence of Italian courts and judges is among the worst in Europe, according to the EU’s justice scoreboard.