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 LIVE BLOG: First exit polls expected after 11pm

Italy is voting now in crucial polls expected to result in the first far-right government in the country’s postwar history. Follow The Local's latest updates as results come in on election night.

Italian elections LIVE BLOG: First exit polls expected after 11pm

21.50 Long queues, but lower turnout

Long queues were reported at some polling stations around the country today, in some cases with voters queuing before they opened at 7am – leading to speculation that there would be higher turnout than in the 2018 election

But it looks like turnout is in fact lower, according to interior ministry figures, which put it at 51 percent at 7pm – four hours before polls closed – down from 58 percent.

The lowest turnout was in the south and islands, according to analysis of the official data by Youtrend, at 40 percent – 12.1 percent lower than in 2018.

This highest turnout at 56 percent was in the north-west, which also happens to be where the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the League (formerly the Northern League) have their biggest support base.

Another interesting bit of analysis from Youtrend: turnout is down much more in municipalities with fewer foreign residents (-10.6%) and is down much less in areas where more foreigners live (-5.4 %). “The more foreigners there are, the less the turnout falls”, Youtrend notes.

Lower turnout overall this time isn’t a surprise. Abstentionism was expected to increase, with opinion polls during the election campaign predicting as many as 16 million voters would refrain from voting – Italy has a voting population of just over 46.5 million.

Italian affluenza or voter turnout is generally fairly high by international standards: 73 percent of eligible voters voted in the last parliamentary election in 2018 – though this was the country’s worst-ever rate of participation, and the number has been steadily dropping for years.

Italy’s political leaders were pictured turning out for the vote. Here’s outgoing prime minister, Mario Draghi, who’s not campaigning for re-election and has made it clear he’s not interested in another term.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and his wife Maria Serenella Cappello arrive to cast their vote at the Liceo Mameli polling station in Rome. Photo by RICCARDO ANTIMIANI / ANSA / AFP

21.30 When do we get the first results?

Polls close at 11pm and counting starts immediately after. 

The first exit polls from the country’s leading news media should be out by 11.30. Though they are usually fairly close to the mark, exit polls can’t be relied upon entirely, as the 2013 exit poll debacle showed.

The time needed to announce the first official results depends on how many ballots there are to count. Turnout is expected to be similar to that at the last election in 2018 – maybe slightly lower – so Italian media are predicting 2am for the first official projections based on data from polling stations. Or maybe 3am. We could be in for a long night.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

Ballot papers for the election of the Senate are counted first. When that’s complete, volunteers will turn their attention to counting ballots for the lower house of parliament. 

21.00 Italy’s election night begins

Buonasera a tutti and welcome to The Local’s 2022 Italian election blog. There’s a lot at stake in these crucial elections as far right parties Brothers of Italy and the League are expected to win by a landslide.

Voting will close in two hours and we expect the first exit polls shortly after (you can read more here to get a sense of when things will happen tonight), but before then we’ll keep you posted with the latest news, predictions, expert insights and more.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy eyes historic victory as Italy votes

I’m The Local Italy’s editor Clare Speak and I’ll be updating you tonight as the exit polls and first results start to come in.

If you have questions, comments or feedback, please feel free to email or tweet me and I’ll do my best to answer (depending on how busy things get here tonight).

No matter how you feel about the election, I hope you’ll at least enjoy our coverage.

Not sure what to make of it all? Here’s our complete guide to the elections and what’s at stake.

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