Italy begins holding two votes a day as presidential deadlock continues

Italian political leaders agreed on Friday to hold two daily votes for the post of president after days of deadlock that has paralysed Prime Minister Mario Draghi's government.

Italy's current President Sergio Mattarella greets Prime Minister Mario Draghi at the Quirinal presidential palace in Rome on November 26, 2021.
Italy's current President Sergio Mattarella greets Prime Minister Mario Draghi at the Quirinal presidential palace in Rome on November 26, 2021. Alberto PIZZOLI / POOL / AFP

Four rounds of voting in parliament since Monday have failed to produce anything close to a winner, with most lawmakers casting blank ballots or abstaining due to a lack of agreement between the parties.

Four rounds of voting since Monday failed to produce anything close to a winner, with most lawmakers casting blank ballots or abstaining due to a lack of agreement between the parties.

The change followed calls to step up the pace from Enrico Letta of the centre-left Democratic Party and Matteo Salvini of the populist, anti-immigration League party.

However, the vote can still go on indefinitely as long as parties fail to find a consensus.

But the first ballot on Friday resulted in failure, after the leftist bloc in parliament abstained in protest at the candidate proposed by the right.

And the sixth attempt in the evening collapsed before it started after the right-wing bloc said it would abstain in response to the earlier boycott.

Two more votes were scheduled Saturday, and negotiations continued between the disparate parties that share power in Draghi’s national unity government.

EXPLAINED: Do Italian presidential elections normally take this long?

The presidential vote – which with its secret ballots and back-room deals is often compared to a papal conclave – risks deepening fractures within the current broad coalition government that has been in place for 11 months.

On Friday, the right-wing bloc in parliament, including Matteo Salvini’s League party and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, finally put forward a candidate, Senate president Elisabetta Casellati.

But as a Berlusconi loyalist known for her opposition to abortion and same-sex unions, she is controversial and unlikely to secure the required majority of votes.

Former premier Berlusconi, who abandoned his own unlikely candidacy at the weekend but has since been in hospital, ostensibly for checks, vouched for her “absolute suitability”.

“I appeal to parliamentarians on all sides to ask them to support Casellati,” the 85-year-old said in a statement.

President of the Senate Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati (L) is one of the people in charge of counting ballots, but is now herself in the running to become Italy’s new president. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / POOL / AFP)

But the so-called centre-left bloc, including the Democratic Party and the populist Five Star Movement, decried a “serious error” of choice and boycotted the morning vote.

“The solution is an impartial name we all agree on,” Five Star leader and former premier Giuseppe Conte told reporters.

PM Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief brought in to lead a national unity government almost a year ago, remains in the running to be elected new head of state.

But there is widespread concern his departure as prime minister could destabilise the government at a critical time and even spark snap elections – which few parties want.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Italy’s presidential elections

But “as the stalemate continues and the political backdrop becomes more toxic, the main beneficiary could end up being either Mario Draghi or (outgoing) President Sergio Mattarella”, noted Wolfango Piccoli of the Teneo consultancy.

Mattarella, 80, secured the largest number of votes in Thursday’s round of voting, despite repeatedly saying he will not renew his seven-year term.

Italy has recovered strongly from a 2020 pandemic-induced recession but is banking on almost 200 billion euros in EU funds to cement the trend.

This money is in turn dependent on a tight timetable of reforms – notably to the tax and justice systems, and public administration – that many fear will be derailed without Draghi’s hand on the tiller.

The president is a ceremonial figure but wields great power during political crises – frequent events in Italy, which has had dozens of different governments since World War II.

The vote for the presidency is carried out in parliament among more than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives.

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Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Italy's government is leading a revolt against an EU plan for a green car transition, vowing to protect the automotive industry in a country still strongly attached to the combustion engine - despite the impact of climate change.

Why Italy is fighting EU plans to limit vehicle emissions

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s hard-right coalition, which came into office last October, tried and failed to block EU plans to ban the sale of new cars running on fossil fuels by 2035, which her predecessor Mario Draghi had supported.

But this week the government took the fight to planned ‘Euro 7’ standards on pollutants, joining with seven other EU member states – including France and Poland – to demand Brussels scrap limits due to come into force in July 2025.

READ ALSO: Why electric cars aren’t more popular in Italy

“Italy is showing the way, our positions are more and more widely shared,” claimed Enterprise Minister Adolfo Urso, a fervent proponent of national industry in the face of what he has called an “ideological vision” of climate change.

The EU plan “is clearly wrong and not even useful from an environmental point of view”, added Transport Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League party, which shares power with Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy.

Salvini led the failed charge against the ban on internal combustion engines, branding it “madness” that would “destroy thousands of jobs for Italian workers” while he claimed it would benefit China, a leader in producing electric vehicles.

Electric car being charged

Photo by Gabriel BOUYS / AFP

Federico Spadini from Greenpeace Italy lamented that “environmental and climate questions are always relegated to second place”, blaming a “strong industrial lobby in Italy” in the automobile and energy sectors.

“None of the governments in recent years have been up to the environmental challenge,” he told AFP.

“Unfortunately, Italy is not known in Europe as climate champion. And it’s clear that with Meloni’s government, the situation has deteriorated,” he said.

Low demand

Jobs are a big factor. In 2022, Italy had nearly 270,000 direct or indirect employees in the automotive sector, which accounted for 5.2 percent of GDP.

The European Association of Automotive Suppliers (CLEPA) has warned that switching to all electric cars could lead to more than 60,000 job losses in Italy by 2035 for automobile suppliers alone.

READ ALSO: Italians and their cars are inseparable – will this ever change?

“Since Fiat was absorbed by Stellantis in 2021, Italy no longer has a large automobile industry, but it remains big in terms of components, which are all orientated towards traditional engines,” noted Lorenzo Codogno, a former chief economist at the Italian Treasury.

For consumers too, the electric revolution has yet to arrive.

Italy has one of the highest car ownership rates in Europe: ranking fourth behind Liechtenstein, Iceland and Luxembourg with 670 passenger cars per 1,000 inhabitants, according to the latest Eurostat figures from 2020.

But sales of electric cars fell by 26.9 percent in 2022, to just 3.7 percent of the market, against 12.1 percent for the EU average.

Electric cars charge at a hub in central Milan on March 23, 2023. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Subsidies to boost zero emissions vehicles fell flat, while Minister Urso has admitted that on infrastructure, “we are extremely behind”.

Italy has just 36,000 electric charging stations, compared to 90,000 for the Netherlands, a country the fraction of the size of Italy, he revealed.

READ ALSO: These are the most (and least) eco-friendly towns in Italy

“There is no enthusiasm for electric cars in Italy,” Felipe Munoz, an analyst with the automotive data company Jato Dynamics, told AFP.

“The offer is meagre, with just one model manufactured by national carmaker Fiat.”

In addition, “purchasing power is not very high, people cannot afford electric vehicles, which are expensive. So the demand is low, unlike in Nordic countries.”

Gerrit Marx, head of the Italian truck manufacturer Iveco, agrees.

“We risk turning into a big Cuba, with very old cars still driving around for years, because a part of the population will not be able to afford an electric model,” he said.