PROFILE: President Mattarella, the reluctant hero in Italy’s crisis

Italian president Sergio Mattarella, re-elected for a second term Saturday, will have to bring his diplomatic A-game to restore political calm after a fraught election threatened to topple the government.

Italian President Sergio Mattarella
Italian President Sergio Mattarella speaks during a meeting with US Secretary of State at the Quirinale Palace in Rome on June 28th, 2021 as part of the secretary's week-long trip in Europe. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP)

The 80-year-old Sicilian has already been a unifying figure through five different governments and the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. He had not counted on having to do it all again.

A little-known constitutional court judge when he was elected head of state by parliament in 2015, soft-spoken Mattarella has inspired respect and affection across the political sphere.

But president was a gig he only wanted once.

After Italy’s bickering political parties failed to agree on a candidate for his successor, and the threat of snap elections reared its head, Mattarella finally agreed Saturday to stay on.

His second mandate will be tricky from the start, amid fears infighting within the ruling national unity government will only worsen ahead of next year’s general election.

READ ALSO: Italy averts political chaos as President Sergio Mattarella re-elected

‘A little reluctant’ 

Over his previous 25-year parliamentary career, Mattarella had avoided the limelight. He was known mostly for his brother’s murder by the mafia, and for his stand against media tycoon and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

At the Quirinale presidential palace, he navigated the resignation of his first prime minister Matteo Renzi, his replacement by Paolo Gentiloni, and the advent of an anti-European populist government in 2018.

When the subsequent coalition collapsed in early 2021, it was Mattarella who brought in former European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi at the head of a left-right government to manage the fallout of the pandemic.

For his first mandate, Mattarella “arrived at the Quirinale a little reluctantly, not particularly prepared and without a real desire to be president”, said Giacomo Marramao, professor of theoretical philosophy at Rome’s Roma Tre university.

“But he has gradually come to terms with his role in the best possible way and he has been, and remains, a protector of the constitution,” he told AFP.

Family tragedy
Born on July 23, 1941, the son of one of Sicily’s most prominent and influential Christian Democrats, Mattarella spent his early career teaching law at Palermo university.

In 1980, tragedy struck the family when his elder brother Piersanti was murdered by the Cosa Nostra, Sicily’s notorious crime syndicate.

Piersanti had followed his father into politics and was the island’s regional president, determined to disrupt the myriad links between his centre-right party and organised crime.

As he set off for an Epiphany mass on January 6th, 1980, he was shot by a gunman as he got into his car. 

Mattarella was one of the first on the scene, and cradled his brother as he died on their way to hospital.

For the rest of the day, he received people coming to pay their respects in a shirt still stained with his brother’s blood. It was, in effect, his debut in the public eye.

Three years later, Mattarella entered parliament.

Without seeking the limelight, but with a reputation for competence and integrity, he forged a successful career as a minister, first in a series of Christian Democrat-led coalitions.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How do Italy’s presidential elections work?

Always on the left of the party, Mattarella took a stand against the right in 1990, when he was one of five ministers who resigned in protest over a new media law that critics said had been tailor-made to suit Berlusconi’s television interests.

‘Man of the law’
Mattarella is naturally reserved and a devout Catholic, but beneath his calm manner he “has very firm principles”, said Lina Palmerini, a journalist who follows the presidency.

He has recently been outspoken in urging Italians to ensure they are vaccinated against coronavirus.

In 2015, then Democratic Party premier Renzi put him forward for the presidency as “a man of the law, a man of the battle against the mafia”.

A constitutional expert, Mattarella had authored an electoral law that bears his name, aimed at bringing some stability to Italy’s turbulent politics, although it was replaced a decade later.

He was also defence minister when military service was abolished.

He quit politics in 2008 and three years later was elected a judge on Italy’s constitutional court.

Mattarella has three children by his wife Marisa Chiazzese, who died from cancer in 2012

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TIMELINE: What happens on election day and when do we get the results?

With only two days to go until Sunday’s general elections, we look at what happens on the big day.

TIMELINE: What happens on election day and when do we get the results?

7am: Polls open. Barring those residing abroad, voters can only cast their ballot in the municipality (comune) in which they are legally registered to vote and at the specific polling station assigned to them. 

Voters will need to turn up at their polling station with a valid identity document and their tessera elettorale (voting card). 

READ ALSO: Italian ballot papers: What they look like and how to vote

Also, mobile phones cannot be taken into the voting booths and need to be left with the polling station staff.

11pm: Polls close and counting starts immediately after. 

Ballot papers for the election of the Senate are counted first. Counting agents turn to the Chamber of Deputies’ ballots only after the first procedure has been completed.

11.30pm: The first exit polls from the country’s leading news media should be out by now. Though generally fairly accurate, polls should not be relied upon blindly – see the 2013 exit poll debacle, for example.

A man votes at a polling station in central Rome.

Voters are required to turn up at their local polling station with a valid ID and their own voting card (‘tessera elettorale’). Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP

READ ALSO: Italy’s right confident of election win at last rallies before vote

2am-3am (Monday, September 26th): This is generally when the first official projections based on data from polling stations start coming in. These protections are of course usually much more reliable than the exit polls.

8am onwards: Barring a neck and neck contest, a fairly accurate overview of the election’s results should be available by Monday morning. 

Naturally, much depends also on the total number of ballots to be counted. 

In 2018, Italy recorded its worst-ever election turnout, with only 73 percent of Italians choosing to cast their vote. 

READ ALSO: INTERVIEW: What’s behind the decline in Italian voter turnout?

According to recent polls, abstentionism might be even worse this time around, with as many as 16 million Italians expected to refrain from voting – Italy has a voting population of just over 46.5 million.

A policeman stands outside a polling station in central Rome.

According to the latest available polls, as many as 16 million Italians might abstain from voting on Sunday. Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP

While being a serious concern for the country’s democracy, a low turnout would make things easier for counting agents and would likely bring the announcement of results forward.

The winners of Sunday’s elections will be known and declared by Monday evening at the latest, though official counting operations, including any potential recounts, will only end towards the end of the week.

The coming weeks: Once counting is complete, the new parliament is formed, with lower and upper house seats allocated through a blend of proportional and first-past-the-post system.

READ ALSO: Your ultimate guide to Italy’s crucial elections on Sunday

The new parliament will convene on October 13th. After that date, President Sergio Mattarella will start consultations with party leaders to discuss the formation of the new government.

It’ll take at least 25 days for the new government to take up office, though it can also take significantly longer – in 2018, the first Conte cabinet only assumed its powers 88 days (almost three months) after the elections.