Opinion

Can Sergio Mattarella repeat his presidential term?

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After six and a half years as head of state, veteran politician and jurist Sergio Mattarella is in his last months as President of the Republic. Under normal circumstances, his name should not be among the possible candidates to become the new head of state, but these circumstances have been altered for three fundamental reasons. 

The first is that he has had a simply impeccable presidential mandate, resolving three almost consecutive government crises (March-May 2108, August-September 2019 and January-February 2021), and all of them without stepping out of his strict role of neutrality.

The second is that, as a consequence of the above, he enjoys extraordinary levels of popularity, receiving standing ovations wherever he goes. And the President of the Republic in Italy must not only be a figure of proven honesty and the highest prestige, but also a personality of the highest relevance, which Mattarella embodies like few others.

And finally, there is a third reason for this: the 1948 Constitution does not establish term limits for the president of the Republic, and this was proven in the case of the previous head of state, who was re-elected in 2013 despite having exhausted his previous mandate (which dated back to 2006) and who had to resign for health reasons in December 2014, as he was then approaching 90 years of age.

In relation to this, Mattarella's age (he turned 80 last June) does not constitute any obstacle to his re-election either. It is true that the President of the Republic, at the time of his election, should be between 60 and 75 years of age, and Mattarella, as we have just said, is well beyond this age range, but also that there have already been two presidents who have been elected over 80 years of age: Sandro Pertini in 1978 (he was already 84), and Napolitano in 2006 (he was, in his case, 81). Another question is whether Mattarella would like to spend seven more years in the Quirinal and end his term in office at around 90. He himself ruled himself out in his Christmas message this year, stating that last Christmas was the last time he would address Italians as President of the Republic in order to wish them a Happy New Year in 2021.

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The problem for Mattarella is that the natural candidate to succeed him does not want to do so, and that is none other than the current President of the Council of Ministers, Mario Draghi, who is deeply involved in the management of European funds and doing everything possible to modernise the productive apparatus which, in some areas (such as industry), is somewhat stagnant. Moreover, at present, the only ones who can force Draghi's arrival at the Quirinale (Salvini, for the Lega, and Meloni, for Fratelli d'Italia) do not have enough votes to push through his candidacy.

Apart from Draghi, there are hardly any candidates of sufficient standing. A good choice would be Mario Monti, prime minister between 2011 and 2013. Monti is an avowed pro-European (he was European Commissioner between 1994 and 2004); he knows what it is like to preside over the Council of Ministers, in addition to serving as Minister of Economy and Finance; he knows the party system well (he even founded the Scelta Civica formation) and has been a member of the Senate for almost a decade. Born in March 1943, his current age of 78 is a perfect age to assume the office of head of state, and his honour is unquestionable.

Monti has, however, two fundamental problems. His time as prime minister did not leave good memories, as he had to apply harsh austerity policies and the country, in addition to falling heavily into debt, experienced a 3.7 per cent decline in GDP. But he could do little or nothing about it: at the time, austerity in public finances, something imposed by the countries of central and northern Europe, was the order of the day within the EU, and he also had to live through the speculative process surrounding sovereign debt, which led to the Italian risk premium reaching 545 basis points, surpassed only by neighbouring Spain among the main European economies. 

The second problem is that, in reality, he is nobody's candidate: none of the main political forces support him. But this has already happened, for example, with Scalfaro in 1992, or with Mattarella himself in 2015, who, although he became a member of the PD, had been a member of the judiciary for years and was basically an independent. So he is the classic candidate who is finally voted in because the different political forces are unable to impose their preferred candidate.

It should be borne in mind, because it is a tradition that is usually observed, that the President of the Republic has normally been President of one of the two Houses of Parliament before: Pertini was, Scalfaro was, and Napolitano was too. And it is also worth wondering whether, for once, after more than a dozen presidents of the Republic, all of them men, the time has come for a woman to become head of state for the first time. 

Emma Bonino had already tried in 1999: she had already passed the age of 50 (no head of state has ever lived less than half a century), but she belonged to a party that was too weak (Marco Pannella's radicals) and her candidacy was easily defeated. Her name was considered again for the 2015 election, but she fell seriously ill a few months before and had to discard herself before the voting began.

And, in turn, the most voted candidate after Mattarella in the 2015 presidential elections, the jurist Imposimato, who for years chaired the parliamentary commission in charge of investigating the kidnapping and murder (March-May 1978) of five-time prime minister Aldo Moro, died a few years ago, so his name can no longer be considered for more than obvious reasons.

This is why Mattarella's re-election is gaining more and more momentum, as has been reported by prestigious newspapers such as The Washington Post and The Economist. Because the continuity of Mattarella as head of state, and of Draghi as head of government (the two, by the way, are only six years apart, as the "premier" was born in Rome in September 1947), is what economic agents, and also the majority of the transalpine population, are most eagerly awaiting. Let us consider that Draghi, after six months in government, has 66% popular support, while Mattarella, in turn, has around 80%. Moreover, in Mattarella's case, he can always reserve the option of resigning before his mandate expires precisely for health reasons: in other words, the same as Napolitano did almost seven years ago. 

It seems clear that the veteran Sicilian politician and jurist will do everything possible to avoid a second term: he is eager to retire to his homeland. Let us remember that he has spent a good part of his life in Rome, first between the late 1950s and the late 1960s, when his father, Bernardo Mattarella, a prominent member of the Christian Democrats (DC), was a member of many governments, although he never held the main portfolios. And then let us bear in mind that Mattarella entered Parliament in the 1983-87 legislature in order to carry on the legacy of his brother Piersanti (governor of Sicily brutally murdered by the Cosa Nostra in the early 1980s as he was leaving mass), and that he has been both minister and deputy prime minister, making almost four decades of uninterrupted public service, including a stint on the Superior Council of the Magistracy.

There are still, as we have said, almost five months to go before the election of the new president of the Republic. But the reality is that Mattarella is a guarantee of the proper functioning of the institutions and that he is in full possession of his powers. Of course, this "totto-nomi" (circulation of possible candidates for the Presidency of the Republic) has only just begun, but, as of today, Mattarella's re-election appears to be one of the most important possibilities. Time will decide.

Pablo Martín de Santa Olalla Saludes is a professor at the Centro Universitario ESERP and author of the book 'Historia de la Italia republicana, 1946-2021' (Sílex Ediciones, 2021).