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Who is Elisabetta Casellati? The woman trying to break Italy’s parliamentary deadlock

Italian politician Elisabetta Casellati has been given the task of finding common ground between the centre-right and Five Star Movement in a bid to end parliamentary deadlock after March's inconclusive election. Here's what you need to know about the Speaker of the Senate.

Who is Elisabetta Casellati? The woman trying to break Italy's parliamentary deadlock
Elisabetta Casellati answers journalists' questions on Tuesday. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Casellati was elected to the post, one of the most prestigious in the country, last month, and on Wednesday she was given an “exploratory mandate” by Sergio Mattarella. This will involve carrying talks with each of the parties that make up the rightwing coalition as well as the Five Star Movement, and these discussions are likely to be more informal than those that Mattarella has held over the past few weeks.

Both the centre-right coalition (including Forza Italia, the League, and Brothers of Italy) and the Five Star Movement fell short of a majority in the recent general election and have so far not been able to agree on a way to work together. Casellati's unenviable task is to see if a parliamentary majority is possible, and she will report the results of her talks to Mattarella on Friday. 

The 71-year-old comes from Rovigo in the northeastern Veneto region and has had a long career in politics after graduating in ecclesiastical law and working as a lawyer specializing in marriage and annulment cases.

She joined Forza Italia when it was founded in its first incarnation in 1994, and was elected to the Italian Senate that same year. Since then, she's held a string of high-profile roles both within Forza Italia and in parliament, including as Under-Secretary of Health and Under-Secretary of Justice.

Casting a vote during a session of the Senate. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Her voting record in parliament is relatively conservative, including opposition to civil unions and abortion.

“The state cannot equate marriage and civil unions, nor allow a child to be raised by a couple which is not a family,” she said during parliamentary discussion on the civil unions bill, which was eventually passed in 2016 but in watered down form.

Casellati also signed a bill which proposed abolishing the law legalizing abortion in Italy, and said the approval of the abortion pill Ru486 in Italy was “a grave mistake”.

She’s a long-term and extremely close ally of her party’s leader, Silvio Berlusconi, and has regularly defended him in her many media appearances. When the billionaire media magnate was expelled from the Italian Senate in 2013 over a tax fraud conviction (the same one which still prevents him from holding public office and which he is appelaing), Castellati was one of a group of supporters who dressed in black at the Senate “in mourning for democracy”.

READ ALSO: An introduction to Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party

She also brushed off the scandal over the trial in which Berlusconi was acccused of paying a 17-year-old woman for sex (he was convicted but found not guilty on appeal). “Berlusconi pays young girls? He’s generous with everyone,” she reportedly joked.

And the senator has also been embroiled in controversies of her own, facing backlash for hiring her own daughter, Ludovica, to work for her when she was Under-Secretary of Health.

On March 24th, Casellati was elected speaker of the Senate as part of a negotiation between the Five Star Movement and centre-right, after the M5S refused to support the nomination of Forza Italia’s Paolo Romani for the role.

On her election, Casellati said her position as the first woman in the office was “an honour, a responsibility that I feel obliged to share with those women who through their example and courage have built today's Italy, a great democratic and liberal country where no goal is precluded”.

Now, Casellati is the second woman in Italian history to receive an “exploratory mandate” from the president.

Her closeness to Berlusconi is important in the context of these government consultations, as the Forza Italia leader's role is one of the main stumbling blocks. The Five Star Movement is hostile towards Berlusconi and leader Di Maio has refused to meet him, while Berlusconi has been equally critical of the newer party, which he has described as a “sect”.

However, that's not the only obstacle to a government, with both the centre-right and Five Star Movement claiming the right to choose the prime minister, and significant differences in their political programmes. Either way, Elisabetta Casellati has a challenge on her hands.

READ ALSO: Key things to know about Italy's political system

ITALIAN ELECTIONS

Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

An Italian centre-left election pact broke down on Sunday just days after it was formed, leaving the path to power clear for the hard-right coalition.

Italy’s hard right set for election victory after left-wing alliance collapses

The alliance between Italian centre-left parties was left in disarray on Sunday night, potentially meaning a landslide victory for the hard-right coalition at early general elections in September.

The leader of the centrist Azione party withdrew support for the left-wing coalition led by the Democratic Party (PD) just five days after the two joined forces, saying it could not work with left-wingers brought in to boost the alliance.

Carlo Calenda, leader of Azione, withdrew his support on Sunday after PD made another pact with smaller left-wing parties including the radical Sinistra Italiana, and new green party Europa Verde.

“You cannot explain (to voters) that to defend the constitution you make a pact with people you know you will never govern with,” Calenda told newspaper Corriere della Sera.

The news was greeted with jubilation by hard-right League leader Matteo Salvini, who tweeted: “On the left chaos and everyone against everyone!”

Giorgia Meloni, leader of the neofascist Brothers of Italy party (FdI) mocked a “new twist in the soap opera of the centre-left.”

READ ALSO: Italy to choose ‘Europe or nationalism’ at election, says PD leader

Analyists predict the centre-left split could hand the right-wing bloc a landslide victory at the election on September 25th, with Meloni tipped to become Italy’s first female prime minister.

Italy’s political system favours coalitions, and while Meloni has a strong alliance with Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Letta is struggling to bring together the disparate  progressive parties.

The PD is neck and neck with Brothers of Italy in the latest opinion polls, but even in partnership with Azione, the group most recently polled at 33.6 percent, compared with 46.4 percent for the right.

Political commentators said the only hope PD has now of posing a credible threat to the right-wing alliance would be by partnering with the Five Star Movement.

READ ALSO: Why has Italy’s government collapsed in the middle of summer?

However, Letta has repeatedly said this is out of the question, as he blames M5S for triggering the political crisis that brought down Mario Draghi’s broad coalition government.

“Either PD eats its hat and seeks alliance with M5S to defeat the right-wing coalition, or it’s hard to see how the right can possibly lose the forthcoming election,” Dr Daniele Albertazzi, a politics professor at the University of Surrey in England, tweeted on Sunday.

Early elections were called after Draghi resigned in late July. His government currently remains in place in a caretaker role.

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