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In Italy, Not All Roads Lead to Stability 

Three questions to Marc Lazar

In Italy, Not All Roads Lead to Stability 
 Marc Lazar
Senior Fellow - Italy, Democracy and Populism

On Saturday, January 29, during the eighth round of Italy’s presidential election, Sergio Mattarella was reappointed as head of state with 759 of the 984 votes. His acceptance of another presidential term - despite expressing his wish to retire from politics - is indicative of the urgency and uncertainty underlying Italy’s political landscape. For months, discussions around the presidential elections have polarized Italy’s political groups. The re-election of President Mattarella by no means guarantees that these tensions will be alleviated. Marc Lazar, professor of history and political sociology at SciencesPo and President of the LUISS School of Government in Rome, shares his analysis of the subject. 

Sergio Mattarella, who at first opposed the idea of a second term, has been re-elected as president. What does the voting process reveal about Italy’s political landscape?

On several occasions, President Mattarella had stated that he did not intend to be reappointed as president of Italy. As a former professor of constitutional law, he often recalled that the Constitution did not allow for reelection. To emphasize his outlook on a second presidential term, he was even preparing to move from his apartment in Rome. However, he has been forced to reconsider, after the political parties represented in Italy’s parliament were unable to agree on his successor. 

Italy’s Right, which consists of Forza Italia by Silvio Berlusconi, The League of Matteo Salvini, and Brothers of Italy by Giorgia Meloni, was split, and divisions broke out within the first two parties. The Five Star Movement’s strategy was too incoherent, fracturing it from within as well. Matteo Renzi and his small group of parliamentarians were unable to play the role of kingmakers as they had hoped to. The Democratic Party is doing slightly better, despite the divergent points of view among its ranks. This is primarily because the party’s Secretary, Enrico Letta, has been supporting Mario Draghi as well as the reappointment of Sergio Mattarella since the start of the electoral term. 

Italy’s party system is extremely fragmented, almost to the point of disintegrating, and political parties have been severely weakened. 

It was only after the sixth vote was cast in the secrecy of the ballot box that Mattarella’s name began to emerge. This is in significant contrast to the 2013 reappointment of Giorgio Napolitano, whom the parties had already agreed on beforehand. This year, the vote was decided by the parliamentarians - from the Right, the Left, the Five Star Movement, the centre as well as the unlisted - who lobbied for President Mattarella, forcing the parties in support of Mario Draghi to accept the decision. Mario Draghi himself became in favor of this solution when he realized that his hopes of becoming president were in vain.

The Brothers of Italy, on the other hand, used this as an opportunity to firmly establish themselves as the only opposition party, hoping to attract all voters disappointed by the government’s actions. 

There are two possible interpretations which could justify the behaviour of those whom the Italian media call peones. First, elected officials wanted to put an end to an increasingly ungovernable situation, by taking the responsibility into their own hands, and, in accordance with the spirit of democracy as well as public opinion, voted in favour of President Mattarella. The second, more pragmatic explanation, suggests that the Parliament members acted in this way because they feared an early election. Indeed, the next Parliament (Chamber of Deputies and Senate) will have 600 representatives instead of 945. With the reappointment of Mattarella, the Italian parliamentarians remain in place one more year before the election of 2023, extending parliamentary allowances and future pensions. The reality of what happened was probably a combination of both.

Two major lessons can be drawn from this election. First, Italy’s party system is extremely fragmented, almost to the point of disintegrating, and political parties have been severely weakened. Given the state of the voting system, which will be adopted in time for next year’s elections, and which will undoubtedly be the source of high tensions between the parties, we should witness significant political changes in the coming months. It is uncertain, for example, whether a centre-right coalition and a Five Star - Democratic Party alliance will remain in place. Any and all combination is now possible. Moreover, there will inevitably be a resettling of scores among and within the parties - especially within the League and the Five Star Movement. Second, President Mattarella will become even stronger and more influential. He will certainly take advantage of his reelection, all while respecting the Constitution. We can expect that the President will use the powers he is given, not only to mitigate the pandemic, but also to implement all the recovery measures that the President of the Council has developed.

With one year to go before the general elections, what can we expect from the continuation of the current President of the Council?

Mario Draghi has unquestionably failed in his position. He had hoped to be elected President of the Republic without having explicitly declared that he was seeking office. This weakened his position from the outset.

On the other hand, Sergio Mattarella’s reappointment at the Quirinal Palace has confirmed Mario Draghi’s role. The Draghi-Mattarella government, in place since 2021, has gained another year to curb the pandemic, roll out a recovery plan, and gain political clout within the European Union. Mario Draghi, a technocrat with significant political experience, is determined to take advantage of the weakening and division of the parties to impose his ideas, strategies, orientations, and ways of governing. As early as January 31, he demanded that all his ministers present the details of a recovery plan on February 2.

Mario Draghi [...] is determined to take advantage of the weakening and division of the parties to impose his ideas, strategies, orientations, and ways of governing.

As President of the Council, bearing significant authority, he will continue to sit on the European Council, making Italy’s voice heard. This will satisfy Paris and Berlin as they converge with the former President of the European Central Bank, with particular emphasis on changing the Maastricht criteria. In return, Mario Draghi will be able to strengthen his own image, particularly due to the grants that the European Union has provided for Italy’s economy. Furthermore, he can continue to undermine the anti-European sentiments expressed by the League, the Brothers of Italy, and the Five Star Movement, whose criticisms of Europe have declined considerably in comparison to 2018-2019.

Nevertheless, Mario Draghi will be subjected to continuous bullying by other political parties, especially on the Right, all eager to regain their political hand, establish their differences, and be heard in the run-up to this year’s municipal by-elections and next year’s political elections.

In the coming year, Mario Draghi’s campaign will therefore be fraught with political pitfalls. There is, however, a possibility of him becoming President, should Sergio Mattarella, aged 80, not be able to fulfil his entire mandate. 

Italy benefits from a relatively stable political environment and is commended for its economic results. By maintaining the status quo, could the country continue to maintain this dynamic?

This is the paradox underpinning Italy’s election experience. The continuity of the two major institutional positions - the Presidency of the Republic and the Presidency of the Council - does not necessarily mean immobility. The two presidents are determined to act, even if, as we have just witnessed, the task of the President of the Council is not as straightforward as it once was.

Yet, there is still significant work to be done in order to reform Italy, particularly with regard to the country’s debt, which is considerable (154.6% of GDP), and a widening deficit (9.4% of GDP). Mario Draghi’s ambitions are monumental: improving the productivity and competitiveness of companies, reforming public administration, making investments in public infrastructures (especially for transportation), developing the digital sector, increasing research capacity and the quality of education, promoting the fight against climate change, improving health services, boosting demography, etc.

But unfortunately for the President of the Council, his time is limited. His fate depends on the outcome of the next elections in 2023. Meanwhile, the Mattarella-Draghi tandem can only reassure the majority of European partners, the United States and the financial markets. Italy remains relatively unreliable, however, especially since the Italian political system has once again entered a deep crisis, fraught with turbulence.


Copyrght: Filippo MONTEFORTE / POOL / AFP

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