Sergio Mattarella: Sicilian 'man of the law'

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Sergio Mattarella: Sicilian 'man of the law'

Italy's new president is a white-haired Sicilian who might never have got anywhere near the corridors of power but for the Mafia killing of his beloved elder brother.


Instead, Sergio Mattarella, the 73-year-old elected on Saturday to succeed Giorgio Napolitano as head of state, has plenty of experience of high office, having served governments of both left and right in a string of ministerial posts including stints at both defence and education.

During a 25-year parliamentary career he was also the author of a since-amended electoral law that bears his name.

Since 2011 he has been a highly respected judge at the country's constitutional court, picking up the strings from a pre-politics career as a legal academic.

Even now, with his air of a kindly professor, the bespectacled Mattarella appears like someone more cut out for the quiet exchanges of academia than the cut and thrust of politics.

And that is where he may have stayed but for the 1980 slaying of his elder brother Piersanti by the Cosa Nostra, Sicily's notorious crime syndicate.

The son of one the island's most prominent and influential Christian Democrats, Piersanti rose to become the island's regional president.

But his determination to disrupt the myriad links between his centre-right party and the shadowy world of organised crime was to cost him his life.

As he set off for an epiphany mass on January 6th 1980, he was shot by a gunman as he got into his car.

Alerted by his son, Sergio was one of the first people on the scene and cradled his dying brother in his arms on the way to hospital. Piersanti did not make it, succumbing to his injuries before they arrived.

All afternoon, Sergio received people coming to the family home to pay their respects in a shirt still stained with his brother's blood. It was, in effect, his debut in the public eye.

It cannot have been an easy one and since he first entered parliament in 1983, Mattarella has never sought the limelight, content instead to let his work do the talking in the manner of the diligent academic he once was.

"He represents the clean Sicily, the one that paid a terrible price for the island's liberation from criminal forces," the island's current regional president, Rosario Crocetta, said this week.

Critics on the right are not so complimentary. "Yet another 'catto-communista' (communist Catholic)," was the verdict of Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

Mattarella's reputation for competence and integrity allowed him to rise quickly to senior office, firstly in a series of Christian Democrat-led coalitions.

Always on the left of the party, Mattarella finally turned his back on the right in 1990, when he was one of five ministers who resigned in protest over a new media law that critics said had been tailor-made to suit Berlusconi's television interests.

A quarter of a century later, that stand on a point of principle may have been the key to him securing the backing of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi for the presidential vacancy created by the 89-year-old Napolitano's decision to retire two years into his second term.

Under fire from the left flank of his own Democratic Party for being too accommodating to Berlusconi in negotiations over other policy issues, Renzi needed to avoid any sign of collusion over the presidency to ensure the party rallied behind his candidate.

Mattarella - in Renzi's words "a man of the law, a man of the battle against the mafia" - fitted the bill perfectly. 


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