Italy’s presidential race tightens as election nears

Italy's parliament begins voting for a new president on Monday, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi tipped for election in a high-stakes version of musical chairs which threatens the survival of the government.

Who will be the next to sit in Rome's Quirinale presidential palace?
Who will be the next to sit in Rome's Quirinale presidential palace? Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

As backroom negotiations hit fever pitch this week, the brashest campaigner has been billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, whose charm offensive has included bragging about his raunchy “bunga bunga” parties.

The 85-year-former premier has long coveted Italy’s top job, even reportedly promising his late mother he would get it, although few believe he has the necessary votes.

It is notoriously hard to predict who will win the secret ballot for the seven-year post.

While a largely ceremonial role, the president wields considerable power in times of political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

Italy needs a stabilising figurehead now more than ever: the disparate parties who share power in Draghi’s government are already in battle mode ahead of next year’s elections, and chaos could put precious European recovery funds at risk.

“This is a key and very complicated election, because the political parties are weak, they are in an utterly fragmented state,” Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, told AFP.

Some surprises

The secret nature of the ballot has thrown up some surprises in the election of 12 presidents since 1948 – only one of whom, Giorgio Napolitano (2006-2015), was elected for a second term.

The role does not traditionally go to a party leader, but someone viewed as above the political fray.

However, the favourite going into the race often comes away empty-handed.

In 2013, former premier Romano Prodi was nominated by the centre-left Democratic Party but was betrayed by some of his supporters and Napolitano won.

‘Like an earthquake’

The leading Corriere della Sera newspaper warned Thursday the vote could “hit the government like an earthquake” as Italy battles a fresh wave of coronavirus infections that risk disrupting the recovery from 2020’s lockdown-induced recession.

Just over 1,000 senators, MPs and regional representatives will begin voting Monday, and candidates must secure either two-thirds of votes in the first three rounds, or an absolute majority thereafter.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who could be elected as Italy’s next president?

Due to social distancing requirements, each round will take a day and, as is traditional, there are no official candidates.

Former European Central Bank president Draghi, 74, has hinted that he is interested, but his elevation to Rome’s Quirinale Palace – once home to popes – would mean leaving his job vacant at a delicate time.

Mario Draghi is Italy's current prime minister.
Mario Draghi is Italy’s current prime minister. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

He has also overseen key reforms demanded in exchange for funds from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery scheme, of which Rome is the main beneficiary, to the tune of almost 200 billion euros. Brought in by outgoing president Sergio Mattarella in February 2021, Draghi has led a remarkably united government – comprising almost all Italy’s political parties – and driven post-pandemic growth.

There is concern among international investors that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi step down as prime minister.

READ ALSO: What will happen if PM Mario Draghi becomes Italy’s next president?

Pre-election year

But most Italian experts say Draghi would be better placed as president to ensure political stability and good relations with Brussels – particularly should the far-right win the next general election.

It is also far from sure that he would be able to continue driving through reforms if he stayed put – and risks losing office anyway in next year’s vote.

“This is a pre-election year. Even if Draghi stayed as prime minister, the truth is he would find it difficult to control the political situation, and nothing would get done after the summer break,” Orsina said.

A deal could be made by which Italy’s oldest minister Renato Brunetta, 71, takes over as prime minister, with the leaders of Italy’s main parties taking the top cabinet posts until elections.

Should Draghi remain PM, there are many other names in the mix for head of state, including EU commissioner and ex-premier Paolo Gentiloni, former Socialist premier Giuliano Amato, and Justice Minister Marta Cartabia – who if successful, would be the first female president.

Former papal palace

The president’s formal residence is the Quirinale palace, once home to the popes and kings of Italy.

Perched on the hill of the same name, the sprawling 110,500-square-metre building is one of the largest presidential palaces, surpassed only by Turkey’s.

Construction began in 1573 for the summer residence of the popes. It became their base as secular rulers, as opposed to the Vatican, which was their seat of spiritual power.

Around 30 popes resided there, from Gregory XIII to Pius IX.

Under French rule, Napoleon ordered renovations to make it his Roman residence, but never set foot there.

The Italian royals lived there from 1870 until the declaration of the republic in 1946, when it became the residence of the head of state.

By AFP’s Ella Ide and Gildas Le Roux

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Italy plans to stop ‘revolving door’ between judges and politicians

Italian lawmakers on Tuesday advanced a planned reform aimed at stopping the 'revolving door' between justice and government, as part of wider changes to the country's creaking judicial system.

Italy plans to stop 'revolving door' between judges and politicians

The proposed reform, which still has to be approved by the Italian Senate in the coming weeks, imposes significant limitations on the number of magistrates, prosecutors and judges looking to go into politics – a frequent move in Italy.

Under the submitted changes, a magistrate wishing to stand for election, whether national, regional or local, will not be able to do so in the region where they have worked over the previous three years.

At the end of their mandate, magistrates who have held elective positions will not be able to return to the judiciary – they will be moved to non-jurisdictional posts at, for example, the Court of Auditors or the Supreme Court of Cassation, according to local media reports.

Furthermore, magistrates who have applied for elective positions but have not been successful for at least three years will no longer be able to work in the region where they ran for office. 

The reform is part of a wider programme of changes to Italy’s tortuous judicial system. This is required by the European Commission to unlock billions of euros in the form of post-pandemic recovery funds.

Public perception of the independence of Italian courts and judges is among the worst in Europe, according to the EU’s justice scoreboard.