Selena Grimaldi – The election of the new Italian President: Sergio Mattarella

This is a guest post by Selena Grimaldi at the University of Padova

Foto Selena

Sergio Mattarella has been elected as the new President of Italy. The successor to President Giorgio Napolitano was chosen in three days and four rounds of voting, beginning on Thursday 29 January and finishing on Saturday 31 January 2015.

Mattarella started his political career in 1983 in the ranks of Christian Democracy (DC). He was able to survive to the implosion of this “once dominant” party in the 1990s by joining centrist parties such as the Italian Popular Party (PPI) and the Daisy, and then finally the center-left Democratic Party (PD).

In these elections, Mattarella was the official candidate of the ruling PD party. Initially, though, there had been the prospect of a cross-party agreement between the PD and right-wing parties, including Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party (FI). To this end, at the first ballot of voting Berlusconi proposed Giuliano Amato, another politician of the so-called First Republic who was able to survive into the Second. However, both public opinion and part of the PD were opposed to this option.

In this context, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi proposed someone who could unify his own party, which in the last few months had already proved to be divided on many issues related to the government agenda. Indeed, Renzi needed the votes of Berlusconi’s opposition party to proceed with institutional reforms and with the reform of the electoral law.

In addition, the PD could not risk a repeat of the nightmare of the last presidential election in 2013, when the party split up over the name of Romano Prodi and the outgoing president was asked to stay on for another term.

In fact, Mattarella represents a good choice for the element of the PD that disagrees with Renzi because he is a moderate who has shown that he is willing to follow the ideal of justice even to his personal detriment. One of the clearest examples of this was his criticism of the so-called “Mammì law”, which favored Berlusconi’s business interests when at the time he was just a media tycoon. When the government decided to approve the law, which went against an EU directive, Mattarella – then Minister of the Public Education – resigned.

This time Berlusconi’s FI did not present any official candidate, whereas other opposition parties did. The Five Star Movement proposed Ferdinando Imposimato (an ex anti-mafia judge); the Northern League chose Vittorio Feltri (a right-wing journalist) and the radical left (SEL) proposed Luciana Castellina (a left-wing journalist). The smaller ruling parties behaved in different ways. Scelta Civica (SC, the party of the former PM Monti) chose Emma Bonino (one of the Radical Party’s prominent leaders) as their official candidate for the first phase, while NCD (a small centrist party that was previously part of FI) did not present a candidate. However, SC, NCD and SEL decided to vote for Mattarella at the fourth voting round, while the Five Star Movement and the Northern League continued to support their official candidates.

Presidential elections remain one of the few political acts in which political parties continue to be important, even in a country where nobody really trusts them (popular consent is lower than 3%. Source: Demos&PI, December 2014).

Parties are committed to presidential elections for two reasons. On the one hand, the election of the President is indirect and therefore their role is required by the rules. On the other hand, parties are interested in the selection of the Head of State, since they are well aware of the strong role that the President can play, as the experience of the last three Presidents (Scalfaro, Ciampi and Napolitano) has clearly shown.

However, presidential elections remain quite conflictual. Firstly, this is due to the way in which the process is structured, as the electorate includes an incredibly high number of people and a super majority is initially required to elect the president. The President is elected by Parliament in a joint sitting of the two houses whose members constitute an electoral college that also includes 58 representatives of the regional councils. This time the Electoral College comprised 1009 people (315 Senators, 6 Life Senators, 630 Deputies and 58 Regional Representatives). A  two-thirds majority is required at the first three rounds of voting, whereas an absolute majority is needed for the fourth onwards.

Secondly, presidential elections often reveal conflicts within parties, which can be analyzed in terms of the length of the process, the fragmentation of candidatures, and the majority obtained by the winner.

The length of the process has considerably reduced in the last 15 years. Indeed, during this period parties needed a maximum of six rounds to elect the President. By contrast, in the past the process used to be much longer. For example, Giovanni Leone (1971) was elected at the 23rd round, Giuseppe Saragat (1964) at the 21st, Sandro Pertini (1978) and Oscar Luigi Scalfaro (1992) at the 16th. The new President was elected at the 4th round, confirming the shorter trend. This reduction can be explained by the centrality of the President in recent years. Consequently, parties which previously just played for time now face the threat of popular resentment if the election is delayed.

From the 1980s on, the fragmentation of candidatures has increased. Indeed, the mean value was higher than 10 for Cossiga (13), Scalfaro (16), Ciampi (18), Napolitano I (19), and Napolitano II (13). In the case of Mattarella the fragmentation was also very high, with a the mean value of 21.5. A possible explanation for this fragmentation is that the choice of the President has become more salient as parties have started to lose their grip on people. In other words, if parties are weak and government coalitions are heterogeneous, the President’s role becomes stronger both in terms of government formation and certain policy decisions, including foreign politics. Therefore, choosing a President who can stand in for the government has become an effective political game for all political forces, which as a result try to elect their own candidates in the first place.

Usually, Presidents obtained a relatively high majority in the election (between 60% and 69%) or a high majority (between 70% and 79%), although nobody has ever reached the peak of Sandro Pertini in 1978 (84%). In three cases only, the majority was low (between 50% and 59%). These are the so-called “Presidents of the Majority” (Segni, Leone and Napolitano I) who were supported by a combination of parties coinciding with the governing majority. Sergio Mattarella was elected with 665 votes or 66.8%, that is to say a relatively high majority of the electoral body. In particular, the ruling parties of the Great Coalition (PD, NCD and SC) and the radical left (SEL) voted in his favor. At the last round, the sum of the blank and null ballots was 11.8%. Silvio Berlusconi’s party decided to keep on voting a blank ballot, but this marginalized the party by preventing it from being one of the “President-makers” in the future.

Looking at the political profile of the new President, we can say that it is fully consistent with the tradition of the office. Mattarella has a long institutional career, having been a member of the Chamber of Deputies for 25 years from 1983 to 2008. Moreover, like the majority of his predecessors, he was appointed Minister several times (in six Cabinets: Goria, De Mita, Andreotti VII, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, Amato II) and, in particular, he served twice as Minister of Defense. In addition, like the majority of the former Presidents, he never had a strong position within his original party (DC) and within the subsequent PPI, even though he was one of its co-founders. Finally, Parliament elected him as Constitutional Judge in 2011. This experience is also in line with tradition, as other Presidents have formerly had strong roles in other public institutions (such as Einaudi and Ciampi who were both Presidents of the Bank of Italy).

From this point of view, it seems that parties have tried to replicate patterns of choice of the past. In particular, they have tried to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano, who had a long party career, as well as strong international and European credentials, and great ability to exploit the media. Indeed, there is no doubt that these qualities played a particular role on his ability to influence Parliament’s and Government’s decisions.

Even though parties try – as far as possible – to select presidents who can be controlled by them, often they have obtained surprising results. Indeed, Cossiga, Scalfaro and even Ciampi were able to oppose Prime Ministers and parties when they thought it was necessary, even though at the very beginning they seemed to be perfect “notaries”. Perhaps Mattarella will have similar surprises in store.

Selena Grimaldi is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Padova. Her research interest is in Leadership Studies in Comparative Perspective, with particular attention to the role of presidents in parliamentary democracies. She has published several book chapters and articles on this theme, including the most recent: ‘The President during the so-called Second Republic: from veto player to first in command?’, in Contemporary Italian Politics, vol. 7, no. 1, 2015.

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