Voting begins in Italy’s ‘key and complicated’ presidential election

Italy's parliament begins voting on Monday for a new president, with prime minister Mario Draghi still tipped as favourite to win - but those opposed say his election risks destabilising the country's post-pandemic recovery.

Could Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi take over as new president? He faces opposition for the risk to the government if he does.
Could Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi take over as new president? He faces opposition for the risk to the government if he does. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the contest on Saturday, but despite continued wrangling over the weekend no clear candidate has yet emerged.

Draghi is facing opposition from Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and also Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, who says he should stay where he is.

“It would be dangerous for Italy in a difficult economic time… to reinvent a new government from scratch. It would stop the country for days and days,” Salvini told reporters on Sunday.

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

But Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said Draghi had been an “extraordinary resource” for Italy and insisted talks would continue, telling Rai television: “Draghi is one of the hypotheses on the table.”

Italy’s presidency is largely ceremonial, but the head of state wields considerable power during political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

The election, a secret ballot conducted over several days by more than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives, is notoriously hard to predict.

Italy’s economy has turned a corner under Prime Minister Mario Draghi but a possible move to the presidency is sparking concern among analysts that the post-pandemic recovery might come to an abrupt halt. Photo: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / POOL / AFP
A ‘key’ election

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief brought in to lead a national unity government one year ago, is widely considered the most eligible candidate.

It was the currently serving president Sergio Mattarella, in fact, who inaugurated Draghi when the previous coalition collapsed.

But many fear his departure as premier could trigger chaos as Italy recovers from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic.

With the disparate parties in Draghi’s coalition already in battle mode ahead of next year’s general elections, further instability could put European recovery funds at risk.

EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

“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.

Italy has a notoriously unstable electoral system and has seen dozens of governments come and go since World War II – with outgoing president Mattarella himself seeing five during his seven-year term.

But Draghi has led a remarkably united government comprising almost all of Italy’s political parties.

Italy, the eurozone’s third largest economy, has returned to growth following a punishing recession in 2020 sparked by the pandemic.

And Draghi has initiated 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 ($225 billion).

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

Many international investors are concerned that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi step down as prime minister.

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 election.

The 74-year-old himself, credited with saving the euro from a debt crisis while ECB chief, hinted last month he is interested in moving to Rome’s Quirinale presidential palace but has since kept his silence.

However, the majority of Italians – 70 percent – have expressed their preference for Draghi to remain as prime minister – not to take over the presidential role.

Just over one in ten – 12 percent – would like him to be elected President of the Republic instead of continuing as Italy’s premier, according to findings of a recent surveyIl fattore Draghi e la politica italiana (The Draghi factor and Italian politics).

And almost one in five – 18 per cent – say he “should not hold either office”.

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

Former Italian premier Berlusconi is no longer in the running to become president of the Republic. (Photo by Piero CRUCIATTI / AFP)

Now that Berlusconi has pulled out from the race and, should voters fear Draghi’s election could cause the current government to collapse, other potential candidates have a chance to step into the role.

They include former lower house speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, 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.

Berlusconi’s presidential bid was always a long shot, not least because he remains embroiled in legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties.

He said he was quitting out of a sense of “national responsibility”, but media reports suggested his family were worried about his health.

Berlusconi, who at 85 is plagued by health problems and remains embroiled in legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, was back in hospital on Sunday for what his doctor said were planned, routine checks.

A spokesman confirmed to AFP Monday he spent the night at Milan’s San Raffaele hospital.

Drive-through voting for Covid positive electors

The first round of voting begins at 3pm Rome time on Monday in the lower Chamber of Deputies, with its result expected in the evening.

Voting is in secret, in person and will be slowed by social distancing requirements, with one round a day.

Commentators predict no breakthrough until Thursday, the fourth round, when the threshold for victory falls from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority.

Because of Italy’s high Covid caseload, electors who tested positive or are isolating will be able to use a drive-through voting station set up in the parliament’s car park.

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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.