Former Italian p rime m inister Silvio Berlusconi (85) last night dramatically withdrew his candidacy for the office of Italian p resident. His not unexpected withdrawal would seem to make it ever more probable that current Italian p rime m inister and former European Bank governor Mario Draghi will win now win this week’s election.
tarting tomorrow afternoon, Italy is heading for a week of intense political drama featuring the offices of both the president and the prime minister. The two “top jobs” are up for grabs as 1,009 Grandi Elettori (931 parliamentarians and 58 regional delegates) come together in a joint sittting of parliament to elect a new state president in an arcane, secret ballot electoral process which over the years has been distinguished by vicious skullduggery.
Your correspondent was in parliament in the spring of 2013 when, to the astonishment of many, 101 “snipers” voted contrary to party instructions to sabotage the widely expected election of ex-prime minister and former European Commission president Romano Prodi. In parliament’s infamous Transatlantico, the parliamentary lobby, the atmosphere that day was so charged that striking a match would have been highly inadvisable.
This election has been called because the seven year mandate of current president Sergio Mattarella runs out on February 3. After almost a year of relative political stability following the formation last February of a national government led by former European Bank governor Mario Draghi, this potentially destabilising election could not have come at a worse moment.
The problem is Draghi. The point is that he is the perfect candidate for state president. He is a unique figure on the Italian political landscape, someone of huge standing on the international stage essentially because of his determined “Whatever it takes” defence of the euro during his time at the ECB.
Furthermore, he comes with an unblemished record, with no scandals in sight. On top of that, his 11 months in government have been marked by stability, by exemplary handling of the Covid pandemic and by an unimagined 6.2pc economic growth. Not for nothing, international commentators from the Financial Times to the New York Times see him as the ideal choice for president.
The problem, though, is that he has done the job so competently that many important players from the business community and international investors to the major centre-left party (the Democratic Party, PD) argue that it would represent a huge risk to now move him from the office of prime minister to that of president.
As Italy prepares to distribute its €190bn plus slice of EU Next Generation funds (making it the highest beneficiary), who better than Draghi to oversee the operation, ensuring that this huge financial stimulus does not end up in the wrong hands, especially those of organised crime?
Either way, the parliamentarians face a difficult choice. If they elect him president, as currently seems very possible, then who takes over as (caretaker) prime minister. Without Mr Draghi in charge, his “national” government will almost certainly not last, prompting early political elections at the end of this year if not early in 2023.
Meanwhile, if they leave Draghi in the office of prime minister, then who is the as yet unidentified, unifying and prestigious figure who will be the next president?
Here all bets are off. Could it be a woman parliamentarian, after all Italy has never had either a woman president or woman prime minister? Or will they revert to the usual suspects, those tried and true party troopers, such as former speaker, Pier Ferdinando Casini, who have spent a lifetime keeping lines of communication between centre-right and centre-left open and active?
Furthermore, many parliamentarians look on the prospect of early elections with dismay given that in the next, reformed and reduced size parliament, many are certain to lose their seats. Alarmingly, as of now and with just hours to go to the first vote at three o’clock tomorrow afternoon, both main forces (centre-left and centre-right) in an increasingly fragmented and chaotic landscape do not know (or say they do not know) the names of their chosen candidates.
One solution, touted by many, would be for outgoing president Mattarella to stay on in office for perhaps a year, to give Draghi time to finish off his Covid and Recovery Plan business. So far, however, 81-year-old Mattarella has absolutely rejected such a proposal.
Stalling the whole complex electoral picture was the Old Fox himself, three times prime minister Berlusconi. It was only late yesterday that he finally withdrew his own self-proclaimed candidacy as the centre-right choice.
In truth, his centre-right partners, many of whom owe their political survival to him, had sheepishly gone along with his candidacy, but without any real enthusiasm.
In reality, many of them knew that Berlusconi is too deeply divisive a figure, both politically and morally, for the “unifying” role of president but none of them said so. Not for nothing, in the last week, protestors with placards reading that “The Presidency is Not a Bunga Bunga Party” have taken to the streets.
To many, it might seem totally incongruent that someone with Berlusconi’s track record could even think of presenting himself for the highest office in the land. After all, in 2013 he received a four-year sentence for tax fraud.
Arguably more importantly, he has featured in more than 20 different judicial cases over the last 30 years in which he has been charged (but not convicted) of a wide variety of alleged misdoings, including embezzlement, fraud, money laundering, underage sex as well as the bribery of judges and other public officials.
Now that he has finally withdrawn from the contest, the show can begin. If the whole purpose of his candidacy has been to put himself firmly back in the limelight, to enjoy one last throw of the dice, then it has clearly worked. He has been the elephant in the china shop of this election, in terms of both of party planning and media coverage.
Worth remembering, too, that this election follows its own rules. At the first three votes, you need a majority of 673 or two thirds of the electorate. At the fourth vote, due on Thursday and potentially decisive, you need “only” an absolute majority of 505.
Given that the centre-left can call on 463 votes and the centre-right on 452 and given also 94 “mixed group” (non-party) votes of uncertain destination, the only rational way forward may be via an agreed left/right candidate.
At the moment, only Mario Draghi fits the bill.
Remember, too, that crucially the vote is by secret ballot, a bit like a papal conclave. Which, of course, is fitting given that the official presidential residence, Palazzo Quirinale, was home to 30 popes from the 16th century through to 1870.