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ELECTION

Five things to know about Italy’s presidential elections

Italy's parliament starts voting Monday for a new president -- a process that could take several days and, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi tipped for the job, risks destabilising the government.

Five things to know about Italy's presidential elections
Whoever wins the Presidential election gets to live in the sprawling 110,500-square-metre Quirinale Palace. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

1. Secret ballots

The president is elected for a seven-year term by an electoral college comprising 1,009 people. It is made up of members of the two chambers of parliament — 630 MPs and 321 senators — plus 58 delegates of Italy’s regions.

In the first three rounds of voting, the winner must secure at least a two-thirds majority. From the fourth round, an absolute majority is enough.

EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

Ballots are cast in secret and in person in the debating hall of the lower Chamber of Deputies, with only one round a day planned due to coronavirus rules.

With Covid-19 currently widespread in Italy, a drive-through voting station has been set up in the car park to allow those with the disease to cast their ballots from their vehicles.

2. Presidential powers

The president is head of state and upholds the constitution of Italy, which became a republic following a referendum after World War II.

Key roles include naming the prime minister and, on the latter’s advice, government ministers.

The president has the power to dissolve parliament, in consultation with the speakers, and ask it to reconsider legislation.

Arbitrating in this way becomes crucial in times of political crisis — it was outgoing President Sergio Mattarella who brought in Draghi as premier in February 2021.

The president also appoints one third of members of the constitutional court and has the right to pardon.

3. The candidates 

Anyone with Italian citizenship who is 50 or older is eligible, and with no formal candidate list the result is notoriously hard to predict. Draghi — a career economist with no political affiliation — appeared to hint at his availability in December, calling himself a “grandfather at the service of the institutions”.

Former premier Silvio Berlusconi, the 85-year-old leader of the right-wing Forza Italia party, was campaigning for the post but pulled out on Saturday.

Other potential candidates include former premiers Giuliano Amato, 83, and Paolo Gentiloni, the 67-year-old EU commissioner for the economy, and former Chamber of Deputies speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, 66.

Many are hoping for Italy’s first female president. Current and former justice ministers, Marta Cartabia, 58, and Paola Severino, 73, respectively, are both tipped for the job, as is Senate speaker Elisabetta Casellati, 66.

4. 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.

READ ALSO: How much power does the Italian president actually have?

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.

5. 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.

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UKRAINE

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.

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