Selena Grimaldi – Italy: Will President Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp?

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

There is no doubt that President Sergio Mattarella was chosen in order to mark a change from Giorgio Napolitano’s presidency. The first years of his term confirm this idea, in particular his sober leadership style and his self-restraint are in line with the typical President of a parliamentary system who tries to embody the unity of the nation rather than performing an active role in the day to day politics.

The differences with his predecessor are not simply related to their opposite political culture but also to their different visions of the presidential role. In fact, Mattarella has claimed to be the Guardian of the Constitution and an impartial arbiter of the political game, whereas Napolitano asserted his right to intervene to solve problems over party gridlock and meltdown.

This striking difference is recognizable even considering how Napolitano dominated international relations and how deeply he exploited the mass media to communicate his thoughts and vision in comparison to Mattarella. In a very rough attempt to empirically prove this, the number of interviews given by Mattarella and published in the Quirinale webiste from 2015 to 2018 was counted, and it appears to number only seven.

The polls also show that this self-restraint has probably negatively affected the trust people have in the presidential institution. Currently, the President remains broadly trusted by citizens, even though the percentage trusting him decreased from 49% in 2016 to 46% in 2017 according to Demos & Pi. In other words, a President who has been generally silent on most issues seems not to correspond to the citizens’ preferences and probably to the peculiar Italian political circumstances that emerged just before the beginning of Mattarella’s term. That is to say, the critical elections of 2013 that completely changed the dynamics of political competition.

The result of the elections of March 4 confirms that the tripolar competition that first emerged in 2013 is not a contingent but a stable feature of the Italian political system. The only relevant novelty is related to the changing power relations among parties. In particular, in 2013 three parties gained a similar quota of votes; the Democratic Party (PD) (25.4), Forza Italia (21.6) and the Five Star Movement (M5S) (25.6), and both the centre-left coalition and the centre-right coalition could not form a government alone, which pushed them to form a Grand Coalition. In 2018, among these parties, only the Five Star Movement has increased its score, becoming the first party with 32.6% of the votes. The PD is the loser, obtaining a result under 20% of the vote and in the centre-right coalition there has been a reversal of the balance of power, since the League (now without any reference to the North) gained 17.4% of the votes, whereas Forza Italia obtained 13.9% of the vote. Therefore, the final result makes it impossible for both M5S to govern alone, as well as for the centre-right coalition, which gained 37% overall.

In this party gridlock, President Mattarella is expected to act as “the second engine” of the system by finding a solution to government formation and preventing the possibility of new elections. This government formation process is a unique opportunity to understand if Mattarella’s style is simply connected with his personal attitude or if it is indeed a sign of a weak presidency. In other words, if there is a clear departure from the pattern of the Italian Presidents of the so-called Second Republic, who are examples of strong presidents even within a parliamentary context, or if there is a substantial continuity.

In particular, a call for new elections – even if it is unrealistic – would be the most negative result for the President because it would demonstrate his inability to find a political solution, not to mention the fact that with the current electoral rules, a replication of the same political impasse is the most likely outcome. The formation of a political government, namely a coalition government of any type, may prove to the opposition parties that the President is responsible. Or in other words, his capacity as mediator among parties, who themselves remain the real decision-makers. Finally, the formation of a caretaker/technocratic government or a government of the President may prove that Mattarella can impose his will on political parties, making his strength clear.

Six on weeks from the vote, two rounds of consultations have taken place. According to data published by Istituto Cattaneo, since 1994 only 2 governments have required more than 20 days to be formed: Berlusconi I in 1994 and Letta’s government in 2013. Moreover, on only four occasions have 2 rounds of consultations been needed to find an agreement (Dini, D’Alema I, D’Alema II, and Letta) and Letta’s was the only post-electoral government. Besides, it is well known that in pParliamentary systems government formation can require a lot of time, such as in the Netherlands or in Belgium, not to mention the formation of the recent Grosse Koalition in Germany or even certain Italian governments during the so-called First Republic (Cossiga I, Andreotti II, Craxi etc.). However, this is the first time that, even after a second round of consultations, nothing has really changed from the day after the elections.

Briefly, the situation appears to be the following: The Five Star Movement claims the premiership for Luigi Di Maio and has declared that it is open to forming a coalition with either with the PD or The League. Matteo Salvini also claims the premiership, since he represents the largest party in the largest coalition. However, within the right-wing coalition the League and Forza Italia have different preferences with regards the identification of potential allies. The League wants to form a coalition with the M5S, while Forza Italia probably prefers a coalition with the PD, since Silvio Berlusconi’s comment during the traditional press-conference at the Quirinale about the M5S as an anti-democratic and populist force. The challenge is that The League doesn’t seem ready to let go of its traditional allies to form a government with the M5S alone. However, Salvini has proven that he can cooperate with the M5S in the parliamentary arena, especially during the election of the Speakers of the Chambers. Finally, from the very beginning, the PD has declared that it is unavailable as a coalition partner and will remain in the ranks of the opposition. The truth is that, even within the PD, the situation is not so clear. The faction close to the former leader Matteo Renzi strongly supports this position, but other political factions, as well as the radical left, seem to be more open toward the M5S.

As a consequence, Mattarella decided to follow a traditional path confirming his attitude of caution. In other words, he decided to avoid the concrete possibility of a failure by giving a political pre-appointment to a candidate within the League or within the M5S, who would have to find a majority in Parliament by his/her own. Instead, the President has preferred – consistent with tradition – to give an explorative mandate (mandato esplorativo) to the President of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati (FI). In the next few days, the appointee is going to report to the President if she is able to find a possible majority in Parliament and a possible PM. If this attempt does not succeed, only two alternatives remain: a government of the President or new elections.

The situation is even more complex for Mattarella given he was elected without the support of the two largest parties: the Five Star Movement and The League. And even Silvio Berlusconi’s party cast a blank ballot during the presidential elections. This means that, this time, it may be more difficult for these actors to accept a government of the President.

The open question is: will Mattarella succeed in emerging from the party swamp? Or, can he prove to be a strong President notwithstanding his proverbial discretion?

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