On Saturday, the Italian Parliament re-elected Giorgio Napolitano as the country’s President, following several rounds of voting which failed to produce a successor. James Walston assesses the impact Napolitano’s election will have on efforts to break Italy’s political stalemate and create a new Italian government. He argues that any new government brokered by Napolitano will not only have to deal with severe economic problems, but also the growing rejection of the Italian political system by the country’s citizens.

For a brief moment, the helter-skelter world of Italian politics is in a trough, calm and waiting for the next climb to be followed inevitably by another downward hurtle. On Saturday Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) and the other traditional parties did not know where to turn following parliamentary deadlock over the election of the new Italian President, so one by one they 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 the 87 year old Giorgio Napolitano 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 two very loud failures on Thursday and Friday, the party and, more importantly, the country, could not afford another open wound and inconclusive ballot.

Giorgio Napolitano, Credit: Augusto Frascatani (CC BY 2.0)

Giorgio Napolitano, Credit: Augusto Frascatani (CC BY 2.0)

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. The PD’s ally, Nichi Vendola’s Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL) decided to vote for the Five Star Movement’s (M5S) 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 used the possibility, leading most constitutionalists to assume that there was an unwritten amendment prohibiting a second term. Once sworn in, he has promised to set his own terms for his second presidency. Most likely he will set a time limit and make it very clear that the condition for him to stay on is that there is a reliable government. But whatever conditions he does put on himself and the politicians, they will be self-imposed. For the moment, he has a seven year mandate limited only by the constitution.

After the result, there was exultation in the centre-right; 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 Beppe Grillo and the M5S were furious. Grillo’s immediate reaction was to call the vote a “coup” and say that he was coming to Rome and hoped for a million people on the streets when he arrived. His own supporters were forced to backtrack and admit that a regular vote in Parliament was hardly a coup d’état and the whisper of the phrase “march on Rome”, with its explicit Fascist association, forced him to delay his arrival and cancel the demo – although another demo was later held on Sunday. The M5S candidate, Stefano Rodotà is a lawyer, a former member of Parliament and former head of a public watchdog agency, and a man of the left; not surprisingly he condemned Grillo clearly, quickly and forcefully.

Nevertheless the “coup” and “march on Rome” were only slight hiccups 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. Depending on what parties come out of the PD left, Grillo and the M5S could take a large portion of very unhappy PD voters. The more the M5S supporters – the grillini – come into the media spotlight, though, the more they advertise their lack of ability and coherence – charming naiveté at first, but not a good reason to vote for them. So there is a sort of race between the grillino learning curve and the ability of the PD to reorganise itself. Where these two curves sit when the next elections take place will determine the result.

The other winner, of course, is Berlusconi. For the most part, he has kept his cool, though it was curious that while Grillo cried foul yesterday, Berlusconi said on Friday that if Prodi were to be elected it would have been “undemocratic” and that he and the PdL would have taken to the streets. This is a bit rich coming from the man who designed the present electoral system, which should have led to a Prodi victory. In the event 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 a cartoon of Berlusconi sitting on a river bank, waiting. It was a prescient drawing; the corpses of Bersani, Prodi and the PD have already 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 leading party. No wonder he was smiling yesterday.

The 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 the 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. The 74 per cent of grand electors who voted for Napolitano are far from an indication that three quarters of Italy supports a PD-PdL coalition. The helter-skelter ride is beginning again.

This article is based on an earlier piece at James Walston’s blog Italian Politics with Walston

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

James Walston – American University of Rome
James Walston is Professor of International Relations at the American University of Rome. His primary research interests are Italian politics and modern history.

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