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”.
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.