The Italians were enjoying an extraordinary period of political harmony – Mario Draghi, the prime minister, brought decisive and competent leadership in the midst of the pandemic, and the economy is growing rapidly. But that could be jeopardized when parliament elects a new president in January.
An opaque ritual described as akin to the appointment of a new pope, the topic dominates the political debate because the outcome could leave Italy in limbo at a critical juncture: whether Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief, is credited with restoring stability and confidence in the country, or staying prime minister, Or become president?
There are no official candidates in the Italian presidential elections. Instead, lawmakers cast their secret ballots for a seven-year mandate – they can vote for anyone, as long as they are Italian citizens and are 50 or older. Names that have appeared in previous elections have included soccer player Francesco Totti, actress Sophia Loren, and even porn star Rocco Siffredi. Voting can go on for several rounds before the winner appears.
Draghi has been regularly chosen as the frontrunner to succeed Sergio Mattarella, who is stepping down as head of state on February 3. The 74-year-old hinted last week that he might be ready for the role. At his press conference at the end of the year, he answered questions about his future, saying: “My personal fate is of no importance. I have no particular ambitions. I, if I like, diligently serve institutions.”
The only person explicitly pursuing the role, according to Italian media, is the former prime minister and leader of the scandal-tainted Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi.
“It is highly unlikely that he will be elected, but we should not rule it out,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-chair of the London-based research firm Teneo. “If there is one person with unparalleled vote buying skills, it is Berlusconi.”
Italy’s president plays a largely ceremonial role, albeit with the power to resolve political crises, select prime ministers, and call early elections. Mattarella has been forced to intervene several times to resolve the crises, including Draghi’s call for a unity government in February after the collapse of the administration led by Giuseppe Conte.
The timing of the elections is sensitive. Draghi is in safe hands, but moving into the presidential palace will put his government to an early end, undermining efforts to enact reforms needed to secure premiums from the European Union’s post-pandemic recovery fund, of which Italy is the biggest beneficiary.
“It’s the first time that this election has been of economic significance,” Piccoli said. “The country has lost 10% of its GDP due to the pandemic, and now, with Draghi, there is new confidence … the question is whether this can continue beyond the presidential election.” In a worst-case scenario, Draghi’s promotion could push the general election forward by a year. If early elections are held, opinion polls consistently indicate that the coalition of far-right parties, the League and Brothers of Italy, and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, could win.
Voting is expected to begin in the third week of January, but only on three occasions has a new president appeared in the first round. “There will be unofficial deals, lots of random situations and names mentioned every day,” Piccoli said. But, historically, all of the names mentioned in the lead-up to the vote are there to be cremated. I would be surprised if anyone mentioned so far is the real deal, except for my Draghi.”
Other names mentioned in the media include the current Minister of Justice, Marta Cartapia, the former Prime Minister Romano Prodi, the former Prime Minister and current European Commissioner for the Economy, Paolo Gentiloni, and Gianni Letta, Berlusconi’s old adviser.
If my Draghi stood up, he could serve up his time until the second or third round. “Even for someone like Draghi, it doesn’t make sense for him to be elected in the first round, so he doesn’t want to undermine his position by running for the job too soon,” Piccoli said.