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ELECTION

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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UKRAINE

Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

The chummy relationship between former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back decades. The invasion of Ukraine has put it under pressure.

Berlusconi's bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

After a tycoon bromance, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to break up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war — like many in his country, where ties with Moscow run deep.

The billionaire former premier’s unwillingness to speak ill of Putin is echoed by other leading Italian politicians, while in the media, there are concerns that pro-Russian sentiment has warped into propaganda.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is committed to NATO and the EU, strongly backing sanctions against Moscow, and at his urging a majority of Italy’s MPs approved sending weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

But much of Draghi’s coalition government — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) — has long pursued a “special relationship” with Moscow.

Italy used to have the largest Communist party in the West, and many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while Russians in turn sought opportunities here.

Barely a month before the February 24 invasion, Putin spent two hours addressing top Italian executives at a virtual meeting.

Beds, hats, parties

Berlusconi, 85, has been out of office for more than a decade but remains influential both in politics and through his media interests, as founder of the Mediaset empire.

He was an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, and a close chum — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes, skied together and were snapped sporting giant fur hats.

“They were two autocrats who mutually reinforced their image: power, physical prowess, bravado, glitz,” historian and Berlusconi author Antonio Gibelli told AFP.

Putin gave Berlusconi a four-poster bed, in which the Italian had sex with an escort in 2008, according to her tell-all book. He in turn gave Putin, 69, a duvet cover featuring a life-sized image of the two men.

In the months before the Ukraine war, Berlusconi continued to promote his close ties, including a “long and friendly” New Year’s Eve phone call.

It was not until April, two months after Russia’s invasion, that he publicly criticised the conflict, saying he was “disappointed and saddened” by Putin.

He has struggled to stay on message since then.

Speaking off the cuff in Naples last week, he said he thought “Europe should… try to persuade Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands”, before backtracking and issuing a statement in Kyiv’s support.

“Breaking the twinning with Putin costs Berlusconi dearly: he has to give up a part of his image,” Gibelli said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the anti-immigration League, Salvini, who has proudly posed in Putin T-shirts in the past, has argued against sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

The League did condemn Russia’s military aggression, “no ifs and no buts”, on February 24 when Russia invaded.

But an investigation by the L’Espresso magazine earlier this week found that, in the over 600 messages posted by Salvini on social media since Russia invaded, he had not once mentioned Putin by name.

He did so for the first time on Thursday, saying “dialogue” with Putin was good, and encouraging a diplomatic end to the war.

‘Biased media’

Many pro-Russian figures are given significant airtime in the media, which itself is highly politicised.

“Italy is a G7 country with an incredibly biased media landscape,” Francesco Galietti, founder of risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told AFP.

TV talk shows are hugely popular in Italy, and “one of the main formats of information” for much of the public, notes Roberta Carlini, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute.

But she warns they often “obscure facts”.

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is being investigated by a parliamentary security committee for alleged “disinformation”, amid complaints over the frequent presence of Russian guests on talks shows.

Commercial giant Mediaset is also in hot water after airing an interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which highly polemical claims went unchallenged.

It defended the interview, saying good journalism meant listening to “even the most controversial and divisive” opinions.

“RAI is a reflection of the political landscape, with its many pro-Russian parties. And Mediaset… well, Berlusconi is an old pal of Putin’s, so what do you expect?” Galietti said.

He also points to a decades-long culture in Italy of allowing conspiracy theories — particularly on the interference of US spies in Italian politics — to circulate in the media unchallenged.

“You end up with a situation where Russia Today (RT) is considered as authoritative as the BBC,” he said.

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