Italy averts political chaos as President Sergio Mattarella re-elected

Italy's parties on Saturday voted for outgoing President Sergio Mattarella to remain for another term, averting the political chaos a failure to elect his successor could have sparked in the eurozone's third-largest economy.

Lawmakers clap their hands after Italian president Sergio Mattarella is re-elected during the 8th round of voting for Italy's new president
Lawmakers clap their hands after Italian president Sergio Mattarella is re-elected during the 8th round of voting for Italy's new president during a session of parliament at Palazzo Montecitorio in Rome on January 29th, 2022. (Photo by Gregorio Borgia / POOL / AFP)

Electing the 80-year-old ended weeks of hand-wringing over whether prized Prime Minister Mario Draghi should be elevated, with many fearing such a move would have left the government rudderless at a highly sensitive time.

Mattarella needed to pocket 505 or more votes. He won 759, earning him another stint as president in spite of himself.

The former constitutional court judge had repeatedly ruled out serving for a second term, but gave in Saturday after Italy’s bickering political parties failed to find another viable candidate.

“I had other plans, but if it’s necessary, I’m available,” he said before the vote, according to party parliamentary representatives.

He was expected to be sworn in on Wednesday or Thursday. Although many expect him to leave before the end of his new seven-year term, he is likely to stay at least past elections scheduled for 2023.

Constitutional expert Gaetano Azzariti earlier told AFP Mattarella’s election would be for the full seven-year term, but he could resign earlier.

Draghi said the result was “wonderful news for Italians”.

French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to tweet his congratulations to “dear Sergio”, while German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier hailed a “role model” who “understands the importance of Europe”.

Pope Francis hailed Mattarella’s “generous” agreement to stay on during a period of uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Italy hard.

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

‘Ideal for financial markets’ 
Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief brought in to lead a national unity government almost a year ago, had been touted for months as the most eligible head of state.

But many feared his departure as prime minister would destabilise debt-laden Italy as it recovers from a lockdown-induced recession.

Italy is banking on almost 200 billion euros ($222 billion) in EU funds to cement the trend, but the money from Brussels is dependent on a tight timetable of reforms.

International investors have been watching the election closely, amid fears Draghi’s exit could undermine the whole programme.

Guido Cozzi, professor of macroeconomics at the University of St. Gallen, told AFP an extension of Mattarella’s mandate was “ideal for the financial markets”.

Draghi has also managed to keep to a minimum squabbling between Italy’s parties, almost all of which share power in his national unity government.

But the Repubblica daily pointed out that, with the campaign for the 2023 election already underway, the year ahead “risks being a replay of the shambles we’ve seen over the past few days”.

It will now fall to Mattarella to keep the peace: “a task more difficult than we can imagine”.

‘Big sacrifice’
Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right League party, was the first to openly propose the popular outgoing president Saturday, after putting forward a candidate Friday that flopped.

Billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, who took a failed shot at the presidency himself, also said his party would ask Mattarella “to make a big sacrifice”, as did the centre-left Democratic Party (PD).

Only the far-right Brothers of Italy party was against asking him to stay on.

A double mandate is not entirely unprecedented. In 2013, president Giorgio Napolitano was elected to stay on, in an attempt to resolve the political stalemate left by an inconclusive general election. He served nearly two more years.

Mattarella has already served a tumultuous seven-year term, during which he has sought to be a unifying figure through five different governments and the devastation of coronavirus.

The Sicilian, who was a little-known constitutional court judge when he was elected head of state by parliament in 2015, has been appreciated by parties across the political spectrum.

Mattarella is expected to stay in the post now for a least a year, to get the country through to the 2023 general election. That will also leave Draghi free to forge ahead with Italy’s post-pandemic recovery.

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Italian elections: What’s the difference between a majority and ‘super majority’?

Italy's elections on Sunday are expected to produce a far-right government, but how big a majority will it have and what difference does this make? Here's what you need to know.

Italian elections: What's the difference between a majority and 'super majority'?

The right-wing alliance of parties led by Giorgia Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy is expected to win the September 25th general election by a landslide. 

In fact, the question many people have been asking for a while now is not whether the right will win, but by how much.

READ ALSO: Far-right Brothers of Italy eyes historic victory as Italy votes

The right-wing bloc, led by Meloni’s post-fascist Brothers of Italy and also including Matteo Salvini’s League and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, is expected to easily win a big enough share of the vote to take a majority of the seats in both houses of parliament and form a government.

But will they win a simple majority or a ‘super majority’? Here’s a quick guide to how the system works, what the difference is, and why it matters so much.

What’s a simple majority?

A government with a simple majority has the support of just over half of either the Senate or the Lower House – so at least 201 seats in the House and 101 in the Senate (not counting the six senators for life).

Getting a large enough share of the vote to ensure this is already quite an achievement in Italy, where the electoral system is set up to favour coalition governments precisely in order to stop any one party from ending up with too much power (it was, after all, designed after WW2 and the fall of Mussolini’s Fascist regime).

READ ALSO: Is Brothers of Italy a ‘far right’ party?

So under this system, the party that takes the largest share of the vote still needs help – a coalition partner, or several – to get a majority of seats in parliament and form a workable government. This usually requires major compromise and sees parties striking difficult bargains with others from across the political spectrum.

This time, the right-wing alliance looks more than likely to win by a landslide and take a majority between them – in which case it won’t need to seek outside support.

Some political analysts predict that Meloni and Salvini’s parties will win enough seats to form a government on their own, without involving Berlusoni’s more moderate party. They might choose to join forces anyway – but the more parties involved, the less stable a government is.

And, with a smaller number of parties involved, it would basically be easier for a government to pass the laws it wants to pass. (That is of course discounting the still enormous potential for bickering and power plays between even just a few coalition partners.)

So what’s a super majority?

Known more officially in Italy as a maggioranza speciale o qualificate (special or qualified majority) a ‘super majority’ is a two-thirds majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The prospect of Italy’s right-wing parties reaching this threshold has been hotly discussed in the media, since a government with such a large majority would be able to make changes to the political system itself, and therefore the constitution, without consulting voters via a referendum.

EXPLAINED: Who’s who in Italy’s general election?

A political force achieving a majority large enough to change the constitution would be unprecedented in Italy’s postwar history, and could bring major changes to the country’s political system – including to how the president is elected, or the powers the prime minister has.

and right-wing parties Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d'Italia, FdI), the League (Lega) and Forza Italia at Piazza del Popolo in Rome, ahead of the September 25 general election.

Forza Italia leader Silvio Berlusconi (centre), set to return to government with Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni. Will they be forming a governmnt together after this election? Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP

All three leaders of the right-wing alliance have called for Italy to adopt a ‘French-style’ system which would mean the president is directly elected by voters,, instead of by lawmakers as is currently the case. This would mean changing the constitution.

Which scenario is likely?

If the most recent polls are to be believed, the right is on course to easily win a simple majority and possibly go on to reach the two-thirds threshold.

Talk of a super majority came about as the last polls (published two weeks before election day, when a polling blackout began) showed the right-wing alliance was just two or three percent away from achieving the share of the vote needed to give it a ‘super’ or qualified majority of the seats in both houses of parliament.

The right was polling 19 percent ahead of the centre-left bloc, and will need a lead of at least 21-22 percent to secure a qualified majority in both houses, according to projections by Youtrend/CattaneoZanetto & Co.

READ ALSO: An introductory guide to the Italian political system

A two-thirds majority is “possible” for the center-right “if the advantage in both chambers is around 21-22 percent,” Youtrend’s analysis explains.

Such a majority then becomes “probable” with “an advantage over the center-left of more than + 26 percent”, it says.

The winning alliance will need a majority in both houses of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies and Senate, and taking a majority in the Senate is forecast to be more of a challenge.

Recent reforms mean parliament has shrunk by a third: there will now be 400 MPs in the Chamber instead of up to 630, and 200 Senators instead of 315.

A view of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

Following constitutional reform in 2020, the number of deputies will go from 630 to 400 in the upcoming elections. Photo by Yara NARDI / AFP

Italy has a fiendishly complicated hybrid voting system: about 36 percent of seats in both houses of parliament are allocated in a first-past-the-post vote in single-member constituencies, while the rest are elected by proportional representation via party lists of candidates.

If you want to see what this looks like, try out Sky TG24’s seggiometro, or ‘seatometer’, which allows you to visualise how different election results would translate to seats in parliament.

Is there any chance of a surprise result?

This definitely hasn’t been an election campaign that has kept us on the edge of our seats. The right-wing bloc led by Giorgia Meloni has been expected to win all along – but voter sentiment has apparently shifted somewhat in the two weeks since polling blackout began.

Since the publication of opinion polls ended, support for the left-leaning Five Star Movement appears to have surged while the hard-right League is flagging, according to pollsters interviewed by Reuters this week.

Most said the prediction that the right will take a majority in both houses of parliament and form the next government remains by far the most likely outcome, even if it has been thrown into doubt somewhat by Five Star’s rise.

With Italy’s famously unpredictable politics, and many voters expected to make their minds up only on the day itself, nothing can ever really be ruled out.