On 31 January, Sergio Mattarella, a former Constitutional Court judge, was elected as the new President of Italy. James L. Newell and Arianna Giovannini write that while the formal powers assigned to the President remain fairly limited, the appointment of Mattarella represented an important victory for Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. They argue that the nature of the negotiations leading up to the new President’s election highlight the authority Renzi now holds over his own party, but may have implications for Renzi’s working relationship with former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
14 January, the 89 year-old Italian President Giorgio Napolitano resigned his
position, making way for the election of a new President – the ex-Christian
Democrat, and former Constitutional Court judge, Sergio Mattarella. The
resignation, and the new President’s election (on 31 January), came at a very
delicate moment in Italian politics, coinciding as they do with concerted
attempts by the centre-left Prime Minister, the 40-year old ex-mayor of
Florence, Matteo Renzi, to push through much-needed electoral-law and
Napolitano and the 2013 parliamentary election
had come by his position in April 2013, following a watershed
election the previous February – an election that had brought the country
to the brink of ungovernability. Then, widespread disenchantment with the
conduct of established politicians and the performance of the political class
had led to the explosive growth of a popular protest movement, the Movimento Cinque Stelle
(Five-star Movement, M5S) led by the comedian, Beppe Grillo. Winning 25 per
cent of the vote, it had made significant inroads into the support of both
centre left and centre right, leading to the impression of a country divided
into three more-or-less equal segments, none of which could agree with either
of the others; and importantly, thanks to the electoral system, it led to the
lack of any overall majority in the upper house, the Senate.
was significant because the Senate, which is elected at the same time as the
lower house (the Chamber of Deputies), has exactly the same legislative powers
as the former, and therefore has the power to install and unseat governments
through votes of (no) confidence. Napolitano had been elected as President in
2006 and his mandate was due to expire shortly after the 2013 election. Then,
Parliament – and the regional representatives which, together with the
legislature, comprise the electoral college responsible for choosing presidents
– found it impossible to agree on a successor.
internally, the parliamentary parties had in desperation asked the only
candidate with a chance of winning a compact vote on right and left –
Napolitano – to stand for an unprecedented second term. Napolitano had made a
condition of agreeing to the request for the formation of an equally
unprecedented grand coalition government, whose principal components would be
the centre-left Partito
Democratico (Democratic Party, PD) and its ‘arch enemy’ on the centre right
led by Silvio Berlusconi.
January of last year, Renzi had reached agreement with Berlusconi for electoral
law reform and a reform of the Senate – reforms which on paper looked like
having a good chance of being passed because, together, Renzi’s party and that
of Berlusconi commanded a clear majority and the two seemed to have a strong
incentive to achieve success given the threat posed by the M5S.
sponsoring an electoral-law reform that provided for a majority seat bonus for
the ‘party or coalition’ obtaining 37 per cent of the vote (and after later
discussion, the ‘party list’ achieving 40 per cent), together with a run-off
between the two best placed if none reached that percentage, Renzi and
Berlusconi calculated that they would make life difficult for Beppe Grillo’s
Movement – which, by its nature, would find it harder to coalesce with other
forces and so obtain the magic percentage or emerge as one of the top two.
because it applied to the Chamber of Deputies only, the proposal was
necessarily linked to a change in the constitutional position of the Senate
that would limit its size, its legislative powers and its powers to install and
unseat governments. Together, the reforms were widely viewed as being essential
to improvements in the performance of Italy’s institutions and thus to stemming
the tide of popular dissatisfaction expressed by the M5S.
and Berlusconi in the 2015 presidential election
is for this reason, then, that the presidential election came at a critical
juncture. First, passage of the twin reforms is by no means assured. For one
thing, both centre left and centre right are internally divided on them; for
another the reform paradox must be reckoned with – can one expect senators,
ultimately, to support a reform that will result in them voting themselves out
of office? Moreover, the Senate reform must be passed using the cumbersome
procedure for constitutional amendment. This requires two separate votes in
each of the houses taking place within three months of each other, and it can
be made the subject of a popular referendum if it is passed with less than a
two-thirds majority on the second vote in either of the houses.
– and here we come to the crux of the matter – the positions parties take in
presidential elections inevitably impinge on the positions they take in
negotiating with other parties on ‘ordinary’, substantive matters. This is
especially true in the early twenty-first century where the President’s actual,
as opposed to formal, powers have become much more significant than they were
in the past, thanks to the ‘mediatisation’ of politics and the relative
weakness of the Italian parties.
this case, Renzi was aware that the solidity of his ‘reform pact’ (the
so-called Patto del Nazareno) depended on finding a presidential
candidate amenable to Berlusconi. He also had to keep in mind that while only a
simple majority is required to elect the President in the fourth round of
voting, two-thirds majorities were required in the first three rounds of
voting, and Renzi did not have the required numbers to reach that level of
fact that Renzi’s party was internally divided over the reform proposals and
the collaboration with Berlusconi that they entailed, ensured that support from
his own party was also far from assured. His tactic in the immediate aftermath
of Napolitano’s resignation was to refuse to be drawn on his choice of
candidate and then to urge his followers (as Berlusconi did in the case of his
followers) to cast a blank ballot in the initial three rounds of voting – while
at the same time consulting Berlusconi in confidence. Neither man could afford
to be seen as being the hostage of the other so they kept their cards close to
it was that on 28 January, the day before the voting was due to begin,
Berlusconi announced to his followers: “we have not yet found a candidate. We
will be in permanent consultations to find a presidential nominee able to
guarantee our interests”. Meanwhile, Renzi announced, obliquely, to his
followers: “The profile of the ideal candidate outlined during the course of
the consultations was of one who would defend the Constitution, a politician
acceptable to almost everyone – [but] we will not accept vetoes”.
effect, the decision to advocate blank ballots in the first three rounds was a
joint one on the part of Berlusconi and Renzi, who were aware of the
difficulties in finding a mutually agreeable candidate able to succeed at that
point, and aimed to postpone the real negotiations, which began in earnest on
29 January when Renzi publicly endorsed the candidature of Mattarella.
had pulled a rabbit out of his hat: as a member of the PD who had once resigned
as a minister in protest at legislation that would assist Berlusconi to build
his media empire, Mattarella was opposed by Berlusconi. But the entrepreneur
was aware that, as a widely respected politician who had been prominent in the
fight against the Mafia, Mattarella would not only attract relatively cohesive
support on the centre left but would attract the support of many on the centre
was thus left with a choice: either support Mattarella and appear to have caved
in to Renzi, or urge his supporters to continue to cast blank ballots in the
fourth round of voting, knowing that in the secrecy of the polling booth some
might disobey him – with a corresponding dent to his authority. In the end, he
chose the latter option and the blow to his authority was duly delivered:
Mattarella was elected with 665 votes, almost a two thirds majority, in the
process revealing a major split in Berlusconi’s party, since the number of
blank ballots was about 40 less than the number of his followers.
outcome of the presidential election represents an important victory for Renzi
because it reinforces his leadership of the PD, highlighting that he has
substantially more authority over his party than many thought he would be
capable of when he became leader at the end of 2013. It is also important for
Renzi in terms of his relationship with Berlusconi.
former Prime Minister, as is well known, has for years been widely criticised
over conflicts of interest underlying his position as a prominent politician
and as a significant entrepreneur. So Renzi was always vulnerable to criticisms
within and outside his party (especially from the M5S) that the Patto del
Nazareno was a kind of unholy alliance based on an exchange of favours, not
all of which were likely to be legitimate. What the presidential election
outcome does, then, is suggest that the Prime Minister is far less beholden to
Berlusconi and his interests than Renzi’s critics have so far argued. And this
too strengthens him.
Renzi’s victory could put the deal on institutional reforms with Berlusconi in
jeopardy, his confidence seems to suggest that he has played his cards right,
if not with Berlusconi himself, perhaps with other members of the centre right.
On the one hand, some among Berlusconi’s followers, feeling that they have been
outmanoeuvred by Renzi, have spoken of the death of the Patto del Nazareno.
Others have urged caution, aware of the dangers of appearing to subvert an
agreement widely portrayed in the media as one that represents the best
opportunity in at least a decade for a much needed overhaul of the political
balance the judgement
of Federico Santi seems correct, namely, that the manner of Mattarella’s
election “will undoubtedly increase friction within and without the ruling
coalition. It may complicate reform progress at the margin. However, it will
not derail reforms or threaten political stability”.
this article has been originally published by the LSE EUROPP