‘What is your will?’, PM Draghi asks Italy amid presidential deadlock

The first day of voting for Italy's new president has resulted in an impasse, but stakes remain high as the possible election of prime minister Mario Draghi - still favourite to win - risks destabilising the government.

Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi has asked for guidance on his future role in the country as presidential elections are underway.
Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi has asked for guidance on his future role in the country as presidential elections are underway. Photo by Luis Vieira / POOL / AFP

After voting in Italy’s presidential elections began on Monday, 672 of the almost 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives who voted left their ballots blank, leaving no agreement between the main parties on a candidate.

An obscure 85-year-old former judge, Paolo Maddalena, led the field with 36 votes.

A two-thirds majority is required to secure victory, so the vote moves to a second round on Tuesday afternoon. No result is likely soon though, as a two-thirds majority continues to be required for the first three rounds of voting.

EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

The secret nature of the vote, the behind-the-scenes negotiations and lack of a formal candidate list have drawn comparisons with a papal conclave from the Italian media with references made to ‘white’ and ‘black smoke’ – and can be just as hard to predict.

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief feted for his handling of the eurozone debt crisis and his leadership of Italy’s government over the last 11 months, is widely viewed as the most qualified candidate.

But many fear a move to head of state would cause his coalition to unravel and even spark snap elections, just as Italy is recovering from the devastation of coronavirus.

As voting got underway, the current premier asked political leaders, “What is your will, what are your expectations regarding my role for the country?” reported news agency Ansa.

Opinions continue to be divided over his future role, with political parties arguing the merits of both remaining as prime minister or taking over the presidential tenure instead.

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

Aside from Draghi, there are more than a dozen names in the mix.

Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew his candidacy on Saturday – no surprise, given his continuing health problems and ongoing legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties.

But the controversial public figure called on Draghi to stay as premier to see through reforms – to the tax and justice system and public administration – promised in return for billions of euros in EU recovery funds.

Italian current president Sergio Mattarella (L) and prime minister Mario Draghi. Photo by GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE / POOL / AFP)

Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party also warned “it would be dangerous for Italy in a difficult economic time… to reinvent a new government from scratch.”

Referring to the seat of the government, he added, “Draghi at Palazzo Chigi is a precious resource for Italy.” 

The biggest party in parliament, the Five Star Movement, is also keen to keep Draghi in place. It is polling badly and would lose most of its seats in any snap vote.

Italy’s unstable electoral system

But Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said Sunday that Draghi had been an “extraordinary resource” for Italy and insisted his name was still on the table for president.

The head of state is a largely ceremonial post but the holder wields considerable power during political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

Those who maintain that Draghi should be moved to Rome’s Quirinale presidential palace, argue that with another president, aside from the currently serving Mattarella, the government would not hold up very well, according to Italian media reports.

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

The disparate parties in Draghi’s coalition are already in battle mode ahead of next year’s general elections.

“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 Sergio Mattarella seeing five during his seven-year term.

But Draghi has led a remarkably united government since being appointed by Mattarella in February 2021.

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

And Draghi has initiated reforms demanded in return 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).

No voting breakthrough until Thursday

Many international investors are concerned that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi leave.

Others say he 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 Draghi, famous for pledging “whatever it takes” to save the euro a decade ago, hinted last month at his interest in the presidency but has since kept silent.

Other names under consideration 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 elected, would be Italy’s first female president.

Voting takes place in the lower Chamber of Deputies. Electors who tested positive or are isolating used a drive-through voting station set up in the car park.

Commentators predict no breakthrough until Thursday, the fourth round, when the threshold for victory falls from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority – that would require a 505 vote majority.

Italy’s current president Sergio Mattarella is due to finish his seven-year term on February 3rd.

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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.