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ELECTION

Italy again fails to elect president in fourth vote as parties buy time

The fourth round of Italy's presidential elections flopped before it began on Thursday, with parties unwilling to risk a crisis by picking Prime Minister Mario Draghi, but unable to agree on an alternative candidate.

Italy's current Prime Minister Mario Draghi is a frontrunner for this presidency, but his election risks destabilising the country.
Italy's current Prime Minister Mario Draghi is a frontrunner for this presidency, but his election risks destabilising the country. Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

The right-wing bloc abstained and the centre-left cast blank ballots in the parliamentary vote, prolonging the uncertainty over the leadership of the eurozone’s third-largest economy.

After four days of voting, Italians had hoped for a breakthrough on Thursday when the threshold for victory falls from a two-thirds majority of the electoral college to an absolute majority.

Leaders suggested a deal might be found by a fifth round on Friday.

READ ALSO: No clear favourites in presidential race as Italy heads for fourth round of voting

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief who has led Italy’s national unity government since February 2021, was the frontrunner going into the contest.

But concerns his departure would destabilise the coalition, threatening a tight reform programme on which EU recovery funds depend and risking snap elections, have persisted over days of intensive backroom talks.

Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party, part of the right-wing bloc, insisted on Thursday that Draghi was “precious there, where he is now”.

The president is a ceremonial figure, but wields great power during political crises – frequent events in Italy, which has had dozens of different governments since World War II.

READ ALSO: Five things to know about Italy’s presidential elections

Without formal agreement between the parties, lawmakers are effectively refusing to vote – in each round so far, most ballots have been left blank.

Meanwhile, the list of potential alternatives to Draghi changes daily, from ex-premiers to judges and even Italy’s spy chief, Elisabetta Belloni.

Former Chamber of Deputies speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini and Senate speaker Elisabetta Casellati – who would be the first female president – are considered to be in with a chance.

‘Divided’

Draghi has led a remarkably united government for the past 11 months, overseeing the economic recovery after a punishing pandemic-induced recession.

Many want him to stay to oversee major reforms to the tax and justice systems and public administration demanded in exchange for almost 200 billion euros ($225 billion) worth of funds from the EU’s post-virus recovery scheme.

But with parties already campaigning for the 2023 general election, many analysts believe he will find it increasingly difficult to get things done.

READ ALSO: The Italian vocabulary you’ll need to follow the presidential election

Former senate speaker Renato Schifani said it was “the first time I’ve seen parliament so divided”.

Some even raise the possibility that Draghi could tire of the politicking and resign as premier.

“If parties try to force the situation and elect another president with the support of only one side of the current national unity government, they risk Draghi’s resignation and snap elections,” said Lorenzo Codogno, a former head economist at the Italian treasury.

The electoral college is made up of more than 1,000 senators, MPs and regional representatives.

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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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