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ELECTION

‘Italy needs unity’: Berlusconi pulls out of presidential race

Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the race for Italy's presidency on Saturday, two days before voting starts, but repeated his opposition to Prime Minister Mario Draghi taking the job.

'Italy needs unity': Berlusconi pulls out of presidential race
Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi waves at supporters during a rally in October. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

The 85-year-old media mogul, who is still embroiled in legal proceedings over his infamous “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, insisted he had the support in parliament to win — something analysts doubted.  But in a statement issued to the media, he said he was withdrawing in the spirit of “national responsibility”, to avoid further controversy.

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief who has led Italy’s coalition government for the past year, remains the favourite to be elected head of state next week.

The governing parties, which range from left to right, including Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, have however yet to reach a deal — and with voting secret, the result is notoriously hard to predict. More than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives will begin voting Monday, with several rounds — each taking a day — expected before a result.

Indicating he hopes to play the kingmaker, Berlusconi said he would work with his right-wing allies to agree a candidate that can summon a “broad consensus” — but made clear it should not be Draghi. He said the premier should stay to help implement structural reforms promised in return for almost 200 billion euros in European Union funds, on which Italy is relying for its post-virus recovery.

“I consider it necessary for the Draghi government to complete its work until the end of the legislature,” in 2023, when the next general election is due, Berlusconi said.

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‘Italy needs unity’ 

Many analysts also worry Draghi’s departure would spark a crisis in the government and that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on a tight schedule to implement reforms to the tax and justice systems and public administration.

However, others 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.

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.

Berlusconi announced his decision at a virtual meeting with Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party and Giorgia Meloni of the far-right Brothers of Italy. He noted the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, saying: “Today, Italy needs unity…. I will continue to serve my country in other ways.”

Salvini praised his “generous” decision which he said enabled them to propose candidates “without any more vetoes from the left”.

Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said the withdrawal had exposed a split in the right over Berlusconi’s candidacy, adding: “Now we need a high-level agreement over a shared name and a legislative pact.”

In the first three rounds, the winning candidate must secure two-thirds of  the vote. From the fourth round, they only need an absolute majority.

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POLITICS

Italy’s Meloni in Libya to discuss energy and migration

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni arrived on Saturday in the Libyan capital Tripoli for talks on energy as well as the thorny issue of migration, Libyan state media said.

Italy's Meloni in Libya to discuss energy and migration

Meloni’s trip – her second to a North African country this week – is the first by a European leader to war-battered Libya since her predecessor Mario Draghi’s visit in April 2021.

State television said the Italian premier was received by Abdelhamid Dbeibah, who heads the Tripoli-based, UN brokered Government of National Unity which is contested by a rival administration in the east.

Libya and its former colonial power Italy are key trade partners, particularly in energy, where Italian giant Eni plays a major role in tapping into Africa’s largest known oil reserves.

Meloni was accompanied by Eni chief Claudio Descalzi, who is expected to sign a deal with Libya’s National Oil Company to develop two Libyan offshore gas fields.

Eni will invest $8 million in the two fields, NOC chief Farhat Bengdara said in televised remarks this week, adding they are expected to produce 850 million cubic metres of gas.

Meloni visited Algeria on Monday seeking supply deals from Africa’s top gas exporter to help reduce reliance on Russia after it invaded Ukraine last year.

During her trip to Libya, she is also expected to discuss the issue of migration amid rising numbers of irregular migrants from Libya to Italy.

Libya has been wracked by years of conflict and division since a NATO-backed revolt toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.

The country is a conduit for thousands of people each year fleeing conflict and poverty across Africa, seeking refuge across the Mediterranean in Europe.

Meloni’s far-right government took office in October, vowing to stop migrant landings in Italy, which reached more than 105,000 in 2022.

The central Mediterranean route is considered the world’s most treacherous, according to the International Organization for Migration, which estimated that 1,377 migrants had disappeared on that route last year.

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