The cloak-and-dagger intrigue of Italian presidential elections

The recent spectacle has held Italians and political observers spellbound — but the system’s twists and turns are also strangely dispiriting.
presidential elections italy
Election of the 6th President of Italy, December, 1971. Credit: Keystone Press / Alamy Stock Photo.
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This Thursday, the new president of the Italian Republic will be sworn in after days of cloak-and-dagger intrigue. The process by which the head of state is elected was wearily described last week by Emma Bonino, the veteran Radical Party senator, as ‘the Carbonaro method’ (the Carbonari were patriotic revolutionaries in the early nineteenth century). It’s all secretive and conspiratorial. Others compare it to a papal enclave in which repeated ballots produce both black smoke (no result) and endless gossip.

There are 1,009 electors: 315 elected senators, six life senators, 630 deputies (MPs) and 58 representatives of the country’s 20 regional Assemblies. The voting is secret and there are no declared candidates. In the first three rounds of voting, a two-thirds majority is required; thereafter, a simple majority (thus 505). Although some presidents have been elected in the first round (Francesco Cossiga and Carlo Azeglio Ciampi) it’s rare. With one or two votes per day, it can sometimes take weeks: it took 21 rounds of voting to elect Giuseppe Saragat in 1964 and 23 for Giovanni Leone in 1971. 

Last week the early rounds were like shadow boxing. With no candidates on the blank ballot papers, dozens of names were thrown up for all sorts of strange reasons. Sometimes names (like Bettino Craxi, who died in 2000 or Umberto Bossi, who suffered a stroke in 2000) were proposed for leaders who had no chance of election. It was like a nod of remembrance or gratitude. Dino Zoff, the 1982 World Cup winning goalkeeper, also got a vote in the first round, as did a couple of TV presenters. With 672 papers left blank, even names with single-digit votes get noticed and send a message: an anti-Mafia magistrate; the owner of Lazio football club and so on.

This year the voting was particularly problematic because there was no obvious name to settle on. The out-going president, 80 year old Sergio Mattarella, had been adamant he didn’t want to serve a second-term: he posted photographs of his packed boxes and spoke of enjoying his retirement in his new rented flat. So the easy option was out. Silvio Berlusconi had touted himself, taking out boastful, full-page ads in his own newspapers, but it was a stunt and he withdrew before voting and was admitted to hospital (he has a heart condition, and had Covid last year). 

Mario Draghi was another obvious candidate, but as current prime minister his elevation to president would have led, almost certainly, to a general election that no political party (except the opposition far-right Fratelli d’Italia party) wanted: quite apart from the usual risk of seat-loss, at the next one there will be fewer seats going. The once anti-political Five Star Movement introduced legislation to reduce Italian parliamentarians from 945 to 600. Despite allegedly yearning for the role, Draghi received only four votes in the second poll and five in the fourth. Clearly, the politicians wanted to keep him exactly where he was to avoid the dreaded general election. 

So there was intrigue and gossip all last week. Names were floated in the press, endorsed by one party and thus scorned by all the others. Sometimes a name gained momentum in the third or fourth ballot, only to recede for various reasons. It seemed, briefly, as if the country might gain its first female president, with three options — the head of the intelligence services, Elisabetta Belloni, the current justice minister, Marta Cartabia, and the current president of the Senate, Elisabetta Castellati — all reaching double, even triple, figures. But with dozens of different political parties, consensus is almost impossible. Each time a name from one side soared, the other side vetoed the whole process: in the fifth ballot the centre-left abstained, in the sixth, the centre-right.

The President has three official residences, the principle one the vast Quirinale palace, built by Pope Gregory XIII in 1583 on Rome’s highest hill, and receives a salary of €239,000 per annum. This year, the choice was especially fraught because the president of the Republic, though largely a ceremonial position, is also responsible for inviting politicians to form governments. Which politician to invite is usually far less clear in Italy than in countries with two or three-party systems and in which the electoral winner is obvious. Here, there are all sorts of coalition permutations, and the president shuffles cards and often, in despair, has to throw the whole pack away and draw a technician from outside the political class (as happened with Mario Monti and, now, Mario Draghi). So in choosing a president, the politicians were understandably avoiding anyone who might be averse, in turn, to choosing them. 

And because the ballot is secret, even if a party in theory decides to back one candidate, there are often franchi tiratori,’ unseen ‘snipers’ who shoot down the front-runner. To understand more clearly which party is supporting which candidate, politicians are often given instructions to write a name differently. So when Elisabetta Casellati (a fur-coated, former Berlusconi acolyte) was out front (she would gain, at the fifth ballot, 382 votes) her name was written ‘Casellati’ by the Lega, ‘Elisabetta Alberti Casellati’ by Fratelli d’Italia, ‘Elisabetta Casellati’ by Forza Italia and the UDC, and ‘Alberti Casellati’ by Coraggio Italia. That way, party whips could clearly understand, at least, in which party the snipers were hiding. 

All the politicians want the prestige of being the king or queen-maker. After one two hour meeting, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, suggested an 86-year-old Constitutional Court judge, Sabino Cassese. But his candidacy, like that of Pier Ferdinando Casini (a Catholic centrist in parliament since 1983) petered out. Any Italian you spoke to last week was both fascinated by, and scornful of, the process. The historian and political commentator Lorenzo Castellani wrote of the Camera (aka the chamber of deputies) as ‘an unfathomable swamp,’ and a symbol of ‘a political system in decomposition.’

So the inevitable happened. In the fourth ballot, the incumbent Sergio Mattarella received 166 votes. In the sixth, 336, and in the seventh, 387. He suddenly had momentum, and despite being adamant he was retiring, Draghi paid him a visit. Mattarella let it be known he would do his duty if called upon. A likeable, dignified man, Mattarella went into politics after his brother was murdered by the Mafia in Palermo in 1980. On Saturday evening, at the eighth ballot, he received 759 votes and was duly re-elected. There was white smoke at last.

It was a humiliating process for Italian politicians. Unable to provide a prime minister from their own ranks, they have now been unable to choose a new president. Like trashy TV, the spectacle is fun to watch but also, somehow, very dispiriting.

Tobias Jones

Tobias Jones is the author of the prize-winning 'Ultra: The Underworld of Italian Football'. His next book is a journey along the length of Italy’s longest river, the Po.

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