Selena Grimaldi – The institutional rift and Mattarella’s presidential activism

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

Since the election on March 4th Italy has been unable to form a government. This delay was exceeded during the so-called First Republic on only 4 occasions, mainly during the so-called ‘years of lead’ under the following governments: Cossiga I in 1979, Andreotti II in 1972, Craxi I in 1983, Andreotti III in 1976.

At the election, the M5S won 32.7% of the vote and the League won 17.4%. At the beginning, the leader of the League, Matteo Salvini, tried to convince the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio, to accept a coalition with all the parties of the centre-right coalition that had run together on 4th March winning 37% of the vote overall. However, Di Maio strongly rejected this proposal, since his electoral base could not accept being in government with Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Forza Italia, who had been defined as “a criminal” by the M5S from the beginning. As a consequence, Salvini decided to abandon his former electoral partners, namely Silvio Berlusconi and Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the far-right party, Italian Brothers, in an attempt to form a yellow-green government. Even though, most of the time seems to have been spent in defining points of common agreement between Salvini and Di Maio, there is no doubt that the two young leaders were also concerned with the ministerial nominees to be presented to President Mattarella.

As far as the coalition-agreement (the so-called contratto di governo, or coalition contract) is concerned, many analysts have suggested that agreement was difficult to reach both because the parties had mutually exclusive or ambiguous positions and because of the lack of financial detail in their programmes. In addition, many of the proposed points seemed to be unconstitutional. Nonetheless, President Sergio Mattarella decided not to comment, probably leaving himself the opportunity to intervene later by using his veto powers on a specific piece of legislation. This behavior seems to suggest that Matterella was trying to avoid any institutional rift and was trying hard not to hinder the formation of a yellow-green government.

As far as the ministerial nominees are concerned, the first big decision was that neither Di Maio nor Salvini would become PM. This meant that the two leaders had to try to find a candidate who would be acceptable to both. The name circulating since last week was that of Giuseppe Conte, an unknown law professor without any political experience. Despite some doubts, President Mattarella agreed to charge Professor Conte with formal powers on May 23rd. In so doing he highlighted the fact that the PM should not be seen as a puppet of the party leaders. In fact, during his meeting with Di Maio and Salvini, the President explicitly underlined this point and ended up reminding them of Article 95 of the Constitution, which states: “The President of the Council conducts and holds responsibility for the general policy of the Government. The President of the Council ensures the coherence of political and administrative policies, by promoting and co-ordinating the activity of the Ministers”.

Another important aspect to point out is that President Mattarella, as he explicitly noted in a subsequent public statement, had previously advised both Salvini and Di Maio, as well as Conte, that he would pay particularly close attention to the nominees of three Ministries: the Economy, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs. Even though many analysts pointed out that some of the candidates proposed by the two parties were extremely weak – for instance, the Italian ambassador to Teheran, Luca Giansanti, as Minister of Foreign Affairs or Alfonso Bonafede (M5s) as Minister of Justice – the President decided not to oppose them. However, the biggest obstacle was the nomination of Paolo Savona as Minister of the Economy. The problem with Savona, who was strongly supported by Salvini, was his critical approach to the Euro and Italian membership to the EU. Even though the two political forces may have different ideas on this issue, for President Mattarella Europe was not a matter of political opinion. It is worth noting that Italy’s European membership has been constitutionalized (see especially Articles 11, 81 and 117 of the Constitution) and, thus, the President as the Guarantor of the Constitution has no choice but to defend this framework. Moreover, as the President pointed out, Savona’s nomination would most likely have a dangerous impact on the markets and put citizens’ savings at risk.

For all these reasons, Mattarella was hoping to convince Salvini to change his mind about Savona and tried to restore a more collaborative working relationship by making it clear that he would accept Giancarlo Giorgetti, the number 2 of the League, Minister of the Economy. However, Salvini tried to put the President in a corner, by stating that it would have to be Savona, or no government at all.

It is hard to know whether Salvini thought that Mattarella would back down or if he planned this strategy in advance so as to make new elections the only possible option. The result is that, now, there is no chance of a political yellow-green government and there is a dangerous institutional crisis.

The first reactions to Matterella’s decision have focused on the interpretation of the article 92.2 of the Constitution, according to which “The President of the Republic appoints the President of the Council of Ministers and, on his proposal, the Ministers”. Many jurists have pointed out that the President plays an active and not simply a ceremonial role in government formation. In other words, it is impossible to sustain the idea that the President is always obliged to appoint ministers proposed by the PM. Further, looking at political practice, there are many examples of ministers who have been supported by or stopped by Presidents, e.g. President Scalfaro’s opposition to Previti as Minister of Justice in the Berlusconi 1 government, and President Ciampi’s support of Ruggiero as Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Berlusconi’ III government. Going back to the so-called First Republic, President Pertini obliged the prime ministerial candidate designated by the DC (Andreotti V) to be flanked by two deputy Prime Ministers (Ugo La Malfa and Saragat). In short, it seems impossible to invoke the impeachment of the President under Article 90 of the Constitution.

However, many political forces have called for the president to be impeached, including the leader of Italian Brothers, Giorgia Meloni, and the leader of the M5S, Luigi Di Maio. To date, the impeachment procedure has never been applied. In the case of President Leone, the political parties only threatened impeachment in order to force him to resign over the Lockheed affair. Many years later, it was clear that Leone had no involvement in the affair. The impeachment procedure was also activated against President Cossiga (especially at the behest of the PDS and the Radicals) and President Napolitano (at the behest of M5S), but in both cases Parliament did not take the issue further.

Therefore, what I predicted would happen immediately after Mattarella’s election, did actually happen yesterday: even the most self-restrained President may become active in the political arena under certain conditions. In particular, President Mattarella decided to hinder the appointment of Savona as Minister of Economy in order to respect his constitutional duties, as well as to avoid economic instability. Consistent with this line, Mattarella instructed the economist Carlo Cottarelli to form a presidential government, even though it is unlikely that he will obtain the confidence of the Parliament.

There is no doubt that a number of political problems will emerge from this situation.

The first relates to the so-called populist forces, which are likely to obtain a huge amount of support at the next election. In fact, both the League and the M5s have already started a campaign, accusing the President of being manipulated by the EU, bankers and certain foreign countries (especially Germany and France). These allegations seem to have already found some popular support with certain allies. Further, these forces have managed not to be held accountable for their electoral promises, and especially for showing where they would found the money required to pay for them. Thus, until the next election, no-one can blame them for any failure. Finally, Salvini is certainly the winner of this institutional rift and is likely to emerge as the most prominent figure of the Italian right, pushing Berlusconi aside once and for all and ending any residual centrist position.

The second political problem – as pointed out in my previous post – is related to the fact that neither the League nor the M5S has fully recognized the authority of this President from the very beginning, since they did not vote for him in 2015. Therefore, they may claim that Mattarella is acting as the President of the majority who elected him, namely the PD and other centrist forces. These allegations may contribute to delegitimize the Presidency as a whole as well as this particular President, since the President is meant to represent the whole nation.

The third political problem is that President Mattarella’s media strategy makes him appear remote from the citizens and consequently he cannot count on any huge popular support. In fact, according to Demos & PI, Mattarella is trusted only by 46% of citizens (data from 2017) with a drop of 3 points in comparison to 2016 and a decrease of 10 points in comparison with 2007 when Napolitano held the office. In the past, popular support has proved to be very important in the construction of the leadership capital of Italian Presidents and could have been crucial this time too.

Finally, the real political drama is that the distorted concept of democracy supported by both the M5S and the League (i.e. what counts is the will of the majority) seems to be resonating more with Italian citizens than Mattarella’s idea of checks and balances to protect minorities.

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