Italy’s presidential race tightens as election nears

Italy's parliament begins voting for a new president on Monday, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi tipped for election in a high-stakes version of musical chairs which threatens the survival of the government.

Who will be the next to sit in Rome's Quirinale presidential palace?
Who will be the next to sit in Rome's Quirinale presidential palace? Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

As backroom negotiations hit fever pitch this week, the brashest campaigner has been billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, whose charm offensive has included bragging about his raunchy “bunga bunga” parties.

The 85-year-former premier has long coveted Italy’s top job, even reportedly promising his late mother he would get it, although few believe he has the necessary votes.

It is notoriously hard to predict who will win the secret ballot for the seven-year post.

While a largely ceremonial role, the president wields considerable power in times of political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

Italy needs a stabilising figurehead now more than ever: the disparate parties who share power in Draghi’s government are already in battle mode ahead of next year’s elections, and chaos could put precious European recovery funds at risk.

“This is a key and very complicated election, because the political parties are weak, they are in an utterly fragmented state,” Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, told AFP.

Some surprises

The secret nature of the ballot has thrown up some surprises in the election of 12 presidents since 1948 – only one of whom, Giorgio Napolitano (2006-2015), was elected for a second term.

The role does not traditionally go to a party leader, but someone viewed as above the political fray.

However, the favourite going into the race often comes away empty-handed.

In 2013, former premier Romano Prodi was nominated by the centre-left Democratic Party but was betrayed by some of his supporters and Napolitano won.

‘Like an earthquake’

The leading Corriere della Sera newspaper warned Thursday the vote could “hit the government like an earthquake” as Italy battles a fresh wave of coronavirus infections that risk disrupting the recovery from 2020’s lockdown-induced recession.

Just over 1,000 senators, MPs and regional representatives will begin voting Monday, and candidates must secure either two-thirds of votes in the first three rounds, or an absolute majority thereafter.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: Who could be elected as Italy’s next president?

Due to social distancing requirements, each round will take a day and, as is traditional, there are no official candidates.

Former European Central Bank president Draghi, 74, has hinted that he is interested, but his elevation to Rome’s Quirinale Palace – once home to popes – would mean leaving his job vacant at a delicate time.

Mario Draghi is Italy's current prime minister.
Mario Draghi is Italy’s current prime minister. Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

He has also overseen key reforms demanded in exchange for funds from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery scheme, of which Rome is the main beneficiary, to the tune of almost 200 billion euros. Brought in by outgoing president Sergio Mattarella in February 2021, Draghi has led a remarkably united government – comprising almost all Italy’s political parties – and driven post-pandemic growth.

There is concern among international investors that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi step down as prime minister.

READ ALSO: What will happen if PM Mario Draghi becomes Italy’s next president?

Pre-election year

But most Italian experts say Draghi would be better placed as president to ensure political stability and good relations with Brussels – particularly should the far-right win the next general election.

It is also far from sure that he would be able to continue driving through reforms if he stayed put – and risks losing office anyway in next year’s vote.

“This is a pre-election year. Even if Draghi stayed as prime minister, the truth is he would find it difficult to control the political situation, and nothing would get done after the summer break,” Orsina said.

A deal could be made by which Italy’s oldest minister Renato Brunetta, 71, takes over as prime minister, with the leaders of Italy’s main parties taking the top cabinet posts until elections.

Should Draghi remain PM, there are many other names in the mix for head of state, including EU commissioner and ex-premier Paolo Gentiloni, former Socialist premier Giuliano Amato, and Justice Minister Marta Cartabia – who if successful, would be the first female president.

Former papal palace

The president’s formal residence is the Quirinale palace, once home to the popes and kings of Italy.

Perched on the hill of the same name, the sprawling 110,500-square-metre building is one of the largest presidential palaces, surpassed only by Turkey’s.

Construction began in 1573 for the summer residence of the popes. It became their base as secular rulers, as opposed to the Vatican, which was their seat of spiritual power.

Around 30 popes resided there, from Gregory XIII to Pius IX.

Under French rule, Napoleon ordered renovations to make it his Roman residence, but never set foot there.

The Italian royals lived there from 1870 until the declaration of the republic in 1946, when it became the residence of the head of state.

By AFP’s Ella Ide and Gildas Le Roux

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Berlusconi’s bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

The chummy relationship between former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Russian President Vladimir Putin goes back decades. The invasion of Ukraine has put it under pressure.

Berlusconi's bad break-up with Putin reveals strained Italy-Russia ties

After a tycoon bromance, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi is struggling to break up with Russia’s Vladimir Putin over the Ukraine war — like many in his country, where ties with Moscow run deep.

The billionaire former premier’s unwillingness to speak ill of Putin is echoed by other leading Italian politicians, while in the media, there are concerns that pro-Russian sentiment has warped into propaganda.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is committed to NATO and the EU, strongly backing sanctions against Moscow, and at his urging a majority of Italy’s MPs approved sending weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.

But much of Draghi’s coalition government — Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s League and the once anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) — has long pursued a “special relationship” with Moscow.

Italy used to have the largest Communist party in the West, and many businesses invested in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, while Russians in turn sought opportunities here.

Barely a month before the February 24 invasion, Putin spent two hours addressing top Italian executives at a virtual meeting.

Beds, hats, parties

Berlusconi, 85, has been out of office for more than a decade but remains influential both in politics and through his media interests, as founder of the Mediaset empire.

He was an ardent admirer of the Russian leader, and a close chum — they stayed in each other’s holiday homes, skied together and were snapped sporting giant fur hats.

“They were two autocrats who mutually reinforced their image: power, physical prowess, bravado, glitz,” historian and Berlusconi author Antonio Gibelli told AFP.

Putin gave Berlusconi a four-poster bed, in which the Italian had sex with an escort in 2008, according to her tell-all book. He in turn gave Putin, 69, a duvet cover featuring a life-sized image of the two men.

In the months before the Ukraine war, Berlusconi continued to promote his close ties, including a “long and friendly” New Year’s Eve phone call.

It was not until April, two months after Russia’s invasion, that he publicly criticised the conflict, saying he was “disappointed and saddened” by Putin.

He has struggled to stay on message since then.

Speaking off the cuff in Naples last week, he said he thought “Europe should… try to persuade Ukraine to accept Putin’s demands”, before backtracking and issuing a statement in Kyiv’s support.

“Breaking the twinning with Putin costs Berlusconi dearly: he has to give up a part of his image,” Gibelli said.

Meanwhile, the leader of the anti-immigration League, Salvini, who has proudly posed in Putin T-shirts in the past, has argued against sending weapons to aid Ukraine.

The League did condemn Russia’s military aggression, “no ifs and no buts”, on February 24 when Russia invaded.

But an investigation by the L’Espresso magazine earlier this week found that, in the over 600 messages posted by Salvini on social media since Russia invaded, he had not once mentioned Putin by name.

He did so for the first time on Thursday, saying “dialogue” with Putin was good, and encouraging a diplomatic end to the war.

‘Biased media’

Many pro-Russian figures are given significant airtime in the media, which itself is highly politicised.

“Italy is a G7 country with an incredibly biased media landscape,” Francesco Galietti, founder of risk consultancy Policy Sonar, told AFP.

TV talk shows are hugely popular in Italy, and “one of the main formats of information” for much of the public, notes Roberta Carlini, a researcher at the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom at the European University Institute.

But she warns they often “obscure facts”.

Italy’s state broadcaster RAI is being investigated by a parliamentary security committee for alleged “disinformation”, amid complaints over the frequent presence of Russian guests on talks shows.

Commercial giant Mediaset is also in hot water after airing an interview with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in which highly polemical claims went unchallenged.

It defended the interview, saying good journalism meant listening to “even the most controversial and divisive” opinions.

“RAI is a reflection of the political landscape, with its many pro-Russian parties. And Mediaset… well, Berlusconi is an old pal of Putin’s, so what do you expect?” Galietti said.

He also points to a decades-long culture in Italy of allowing conspiracy theories — particularly on the interference of US spies in Italian politics — to circulate in the media unchallenged.

“You end up with a situation where Russia Today (RT) is considered as authoritative as the BBC,” he said.