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The election of the new president of the Italian Republic is more open than ever before

sergio matterella

We are just over a month away from the start of voting for the new President of the Italian Republic, and the reality is that the election appears to be more open than ever. And it is for two fundamental reasons. First, the two candidates who would have won overwhelming support (outgoing President Sergio Mattarella and Prime Minister Mario Draghi) have no intention of "running". And second, because neither the centre-right nor the centre-left have, in themselves, enough votes to get their candidate through without making a deal with their parliamentary rivals: they can neither achieve a qualified majority, nor a simple majority. So weeks of arduous negotiations await us, which have already begun months ago (especially after the end of the last administrative elections in mid-October) and in which the "trattativa" is certainly going to be very complicated. 

Let's start with those who have ruled themselves out. For Mattarella, who is leaving at the peak of his popularity and recognition, seven years in office (which is what the Constitution establishes for the Head of State) is more than enough: at the age of 80, he has not the slightest desire to remain in the Quirinal Palace until he is 87, let alone enter into "tragals", such as accepting a second term to literally "warm the chair" for Draghi so that he can replace him in a year and a half. Let us not forget that for Mattarella strict compliance with the Constitution is above all else, and if the Magna Carta says that a president must have a seven-year mandate, he is not going to accept a re-election conditional on a resignation already agreed beforehand. 

And some people forget that the only president who revalidated his mandate (Napolitano in 2013), did so not because he wanted to, but because at that time centre-right and centre-left were more at odds than ever and he had to accept to remain in the Quirinal until circumstances improved. Twenty months later, in December 2014, when he saw that Prime Minister Renzi was strong enough to put forward the candidacy of a new President of the Republic, he handed in his resignation and went home relieved that, at the age of 85, the time had finally come for him to retire from public life for good

Mattarella is five years younger than Napolitano when he resigned in December 2014, but he is well aware of the wear and tear involved in resolving crises of ungovernability (he has had to face up to three, the first in 2018, the second in 2019 and the third in 2021), and he wants to make way for someone younger and more vigorous. All that remains is for the President of the Republic's New Year's message to remind him once again that he is leaving the Quirinal, a statement he already made in the same Christmas message but for the year 2020. 

Draghi, for his part, has already chosen what he wanted to do: preside over the Council of Ministers in order to manage European funds. As an economist and banker, for him being President of the European Central Bank (ECB) was surely the most he could achieve from the point of view of the institutions of government, and, taking into account the enormous personal wear and tear he has been through at 74 years of age (a full decade working in the Directorate General of the Treasury, five years as Governor of the European Central Bank (ECB) and five years as Governor of the European Central Bank (ECB)); five years as Governor of the Bank of Italy; and, finally, eight years as President of the ECB, to which we must add the almost full year he has been President of the Council of Ministers), he will surely have the same desire as Mattarella to retire from public life. It should not be forgotten that he is a very family-oriented man, and unlike Mattarella (widowed since 2011), his wife is alive and he has hardly been able to see his two children in recent years. And the personal component must always be taken into account, which also influences the choice of the new head of state, usually a very senior figure. And both Mattarella and Draghi are very family-oriented people, something that is well known despite the fact that both are very careful about their personal privacy. 

Moreover, Draghi is reassured that if there is something that unites parties as heterogeneous as Five Star, PD and Italia Viva, it is the fact that none of them wants early elections, and sending the current "premier" to the Quirinal would mean holding general elections a year earlier than planned. In reality, the situation is the same as in August 2019, when Salvini brought down the government of which he was a member: only the Lega and Fratelli d'Italia want to go to early elections, because it is largely to their advantage. But the problem for both formations is that they do not have the necessary votes to elect a President of the Republic who would grant them early elections, so they will have to keep waiting. 

In the case of Five Star, it needs a complete overhaul of its leadership, given that its leading figures (Di Maio, Bonafede, Tonninelli) have been a complete fiasco when it comes to managing the government. In addition, the Five Star members who have been leaving to join the very populous Mixed Group are now waiting for former MP Alessandro Di Battista to form his new party, and that does not happen overnight. 

In the case of the PD, with an interim secretary or "regent" (former Prime Minister Letta), they have to resolve the issue of the electoral lists, because if they are to run jointly with Five Star and LeU, they will have to include members of these two formations. This is no easy matter, moreover, since many (Guerini, Delrio, etc.) decided to stay in the PD and not follow Renzi when he founded Italia Viva because they thought that the PD would give them greater guarantees of retaining their seats, and now they are finding that they have to share lists with a Five Star party that comes with a very large group of MPs (more than 200) in which many will go to great lengths to stay in politics. Finally, Italia Viva needs to continue to grow as a party, which is why a new administrative election in September-October would be very useful for it, in addition to the fact that elections will be called again for the government of some regions, such as Sicily in October 2022, and Renzi's party will need to expand its presence in many regions of the country. 

In reality, the difficulty lies in choosing the person, knowing that Five Star, on the one hand, and the centre-right and Italia Viva, on the other, literally cannot see eye to eye. But something unites them, and in what way: the knowledge that this is the last legislature with 945 members of parliament between the two chambers, as the next one (the 19th in the history of republican Italy) will have only 400 members in the lower house and 200 in the upper house. And that means that practically half of the current parliamentary arc will have to look for another place to earn a living. So it is much better for them that there are elections in March 2023 than in 2022, because after that many of them will have no choice but to say goodbye to their parliamentary seat forever. That is why it is in the interest of such heterogeneous forces that Mario Draghi remains Prime Minister, because he is the only one capable of uniting most of the political parties around him and, moreover, it would be very bad for public opinion if the Draghi government were to fall prematurely, given the strength with which the transalpine economy is recovering from the coronavirus, and it is in the country's interest that Draghi continues to relaunch the national GDP, which lost almost nine points in 2020. 

So the negotiation will continue until the last moment, because it is one thing if there is a clear "maggioranza" that wants Draghi to continue as "premier" and quite another if there is a name that everyone, or at least a broad majority, likes at the moment. With Mattarella having resigned for re-election (and Draghi, in practice, too) there are very few names capable of garnering the substantial support that Mattarella obtained in 2015, who came close to achieving a qualified majority (he lacked a handful of votes). So we will continue to hear names and more names, all the while knowing that in the end the chosen one is a "dark horse" or "dark horse" who will only be talked about when the first votes have taken place.  

What is most striking is that most of the political leaders are barely appearing in the media, which indicates that they are fully engaged in the negotiations. And with a Parliament that is as pluralistic as it is polarised, achieving a broad agreement (which is desirable because the President of the Republic should be a neutral and unquestionable figure, accepted by all or almost all) is a very difficult task. The reality, in any case, is that the moment of truth is approaching: in little more than a month's time, we will have a new President of the Republic. And all this without any favourite in the running, at least for the time being.

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