ROME — Italy’s fragile political equilibrium is quaking.
The country is rapidly approaching a January 24 deadline, when its parliament must begin voting for a new president — a figure who hovers above day-to-day politics and wields power well beyond a mandate to appoint prime ministers, Italy’s head of government.
But the country’s political class can’t agree on who that person should be.
The election is an opaque process, involving secret ballots that historically unfold through backroom deals among top lawmakers. Yet political leaders are struggling to strike those deals and convince their party members to get in line.
While the left dominated the presidency for decades, a right-wing alliance now has more votes, meaning they should be able to call the shots. But Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old three-time prime minister, has obstructed any meaningful negotiations by covertly campaigning for the job, breaking with tradition as he seeks one final comeback.
Then there’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose international gravitas would serve Italy well as president. But inside parliament, where self-interest and expediency may trump lofty ideals, opposition is growing over fears that moving Draghi from prime minister to president could cause the governing coalition to fall apart, leading to early elections. A recent poll of parliamentarians suggested only one in three would be prepared to vote for Draghi.
Even the tacit acknowledgment by Draghi that he could become president is impairing the cohesion of the governing majority and its ability to act.
The result is a country once again listing towards political dysfunction, as the process exposes the rifts that hampered Italian politics before Draghi, a banker outside politics, took power in February 2021 to run a unity government. And any early election-fueled political uncertainty could threaten Italy’s ability to adopt the EU-demanded reforms needed for the country to acquire critical pandemic recovery funds.
“The parties are already divided by factions and hard for the leaders to keep together,” said Francesco Clementi, a professor in the political science department at the University of Perugia. The presidential race, he added, “is making these divisions more obvious as the leaders cannot enforce their candidates.”
Italian presidents serve a seven-year term and conventionally do not seek reelection. Current President Sergio Mattarella has indicated he will follow tradition and step aside after January’s election, despite desires in some corners for him to stay on as a stabilizing force.
The pending vacancy is now shaking up the political landscape, a prospect that has Italy’s ideological camps jockeying for position.
“A fundamental lack of trust prevails across the whole political system, including between party leaders, within existing alliances and within each political party,” said Wolfango Piccoli, a political risk specialist at the consultancy Teneo.
The disruption has raised the possibility that Draghi’s governing coalition could crumble — whether or not the prime minister becomes the president — and trigger early elections.
If that happens, the anti-establishment 5Star Movement likely has the most to lose. After a 5Stars-led coalition government collapsed in early 2021, leading to Draghi’s ascension, the political group has struggled through an identity crisis as it tries to reboot under a new leader, ex-Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte.
The 5Stars’ popularity has collapsed in the polls since the 2018 elections and the legislative body is facing planned cuts in the next election, meaning two in three lawmakers are not expected to survive the next vote — and many of its lawmakers, especially those who don’t have professional careers to go back to, are desperate to stave off elections until the next scheduled vote in 2023.
“Everyone is just trying to survive,” said one 5Star insider. “The movement is naturally anarchic but right now it’s dog-eat-dog, a jungle.”
In a bid to burnish the 5Stars’ progressive credentials, Conte has repeatedly said the next president should be a woman, a counterbalance to a slate of candidates that are largely pale, male and stale, or former prime ministers.
Not everyone in his party agrees, however. Blatantly ignoring Conte’s signals, a group of 5Star lawmakers is pushing for Mattarella to stay on for another term, keeping Draghi as prime minister.
While Mattarella has repeatedly indicated he does not want to stick around, supporters hope he might agree in the national interest if successive votes fail to choose a candidate and consensus gathers around the current president.
The dispute has opened up a debate over whether Conte has lost authority within his own movement.
“The truth is that neither Conte nor the 5Star control anything anymore,” former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, leader of the centrist Italia Viva party, wrote in his email newsletter.
A person close to Conte insisted he remains in the driver’s seat. Talks are still at an early stage, the person said: “The internal debate did not bring into question these goals and shake confidence in the leader.”
The center-left Democratic Party is another group in flux over the presidential race.
The party’s leader, Enrico Letta, initially endorsed Draghi for president. But he couldn’t win over his troops, who feared Letta was angling for early elections in order to clear out MPs chosen under the party’s old regime and replace them with his own people.
After several Democratic factions made it clear they favored a second Mattarella mandate, Letta this week changed tack: “Mattarella would be the best,” he said.
Splits on the right
It’s not the first time the Democrats have struggled with presenting a united front in the presidential race. In 2015, the Democrats officially supported Romano Prodi but abandoned him under cover of a secret ballot.
The right is perhaps in even more disunion.
Berlusconi has long nursed a dream to become president, wanting to put the scandal of his infamous Bunga Bunga sex parties behind him and cement his longed-for legacy as an international statesman.
While it’s highly unlikely he could gather the necessary votes to win, Berlusconi is holding his partners in the right-wing alliance to a long-term promise to support him as president.
Yet that support — from allies like Giorgia Meloni, who helms the far-right Brothers of Italy, and Matteo Salvini of the populist League — has been lukewarm. Salvini initially said he favored “a defender of the center right” taking the job but avoided naming Berlusconi as that person until Thursday. Meanwhile, Meloni — who stands to benefit from early elections and could therefore support Draghi — has said “a plan B and C” are necessary.
The continued uncertainty is making it harder for Draghi to govern his unwieldy coalition. League ministers recently blocked new coronavirus vaccine requirements, impeding Draghi on a subject — pandemic rules — where he had previously had considerable bandwidth, and disagreement between the coalition partners forced Draghi into an awkward compromise on new vaccine mandates for people over 50.
With the presidential race heating up, in recent weeks Draghi “has still been able to call shots but not with the same determination as we are used to,” said Piccoli, the political risk analyst, also pointing to an “unambitious budget” as another example.
And given his potential move to the presidency, Draghi now “can’t confront leaders to the extent he might need to in order to push through his agenda,” Piccoli added. “He has to compromise to protect his bid.”
Draghi, in a press conference, insisted such a “difference of opinion” is “not new or dramatic” and not a reflection of any diminished authority.
Still, at this point in his premiership, it’s natural for Draghi to be seeking an offramp before things get more difficult. But he is under increasing pressure to stay as prime minister, with the Omicron variant surging and COVID hospitalizations rising.
Many lawmakers feel that if Draghi is to become president, they’d need to see a credible plan for who could succeed him as prime minister and hold together his diverse coalition until the next scheduled elections in 2023. So far, that plan has not emerged.
“No one can resolve the problem of finding a prime minister to replace Draghi,” said lawmaker Stefano Ceccanti, a Democrat.
“The average 5Star lawmaker will only vote for Draghi with a guarantee that there won’t be new elections,” said the 5Star insider. “But no one can guarantee that.”
If Draghi does remain as prime minister — probably with a Cabinet reshuffle and new mandate — an older president could come in and not serve an entire seven-year term, leaving the door open for Draghi to become president in a year or two.
So, once again, Mattarella, who is 80, could become the classic Italian compromise: stasis.