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Turmoil delayed, Italy retains 80-year-old president

Italy's political wrangling is set to get more intense even as the country maintains a relative calm by choosing to keep 80-year-old President Sergio Mattarella in office for another seven-year term.

(CN) — After a week of opaque negotiations and divisive back-room politics, Italy's political parties over the weekend reelected Sergio Mattarella as president, a move that keeps the technocratic government of Prime Minister Mario Draghi intact for now.

Under the Italian constitution, the two chambers of parliament and regional representatives choose presidents, who serve as the heads of state and act mostly in a honorific role. But their powers are considerable too: They appoint prime ministers, they can veto legislation and reject ministerial candidates.

In keeping Mattarella in the presidency, Italy's warring political parties delayed a possible government implosion. It was speculated that Draghi might be chosen as president, a move that could have led to early elections.

For the past year, Italy has been governed by a broad coalition of parties across the political spectrum and run by Draghi, a former European Central Bank president not affiliated with any political party.

Draghi was brought in by Mattarella to make difficult choices, such as making vaccination obligatory, and provide stability to a country seen as one of the European Union's most fragile and explosive problems due to a toxic mixture of economic stagnation, high public debt, wide-spread resentment against Brussels' policymaking and the rise of populist parties. After France and Germany, Italy is the EU's next largest economy.

With the reelection of Mattarella, it looks like Italy is set for a year of friction-filled politics in the run-up to the next parliamentary elections slated for spring 2023.

At 80, Mattarella did not want to serve another seven-year term, but he agreed to keep on in his job for the good of the nation and the sake of stability.

Mattarella has served as the head of state since February 2015. The Sicilian politician and jurist was elected to parliament in the 1980s as a member of the now-defunct Christian Democracy party, served in ministerial roles, including as the minister of defense, and was elected to Italy's Constitutional Court before becoming president.

He was born into a prominent family in Palermo and his father, Bernardo Mattarella, helped found the Christian Democracy party, which was Italy's most powerful political force for decades. His older brother, Piersanti Mattarella, was killed by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980, an event that led him to enter politics.

Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of the London-based political risk firm Teneo, said in a briefing note that Mattarella's reelection “laid bare the fragility of Italian politics and exposed deep divisions within the governing coalition.”

Piccoli said the process of selecting the president has been bruising for the major parties.

“The whole political system, and especially the six parties part of the ruling coalition, have miserably failed the presidential election test,” Piccoli wrote. “There is a tangible risk that within the ruling majority infighting will become more pronounced in the months ahead as the fruitless and chaotic efforts to replace Mattarella have left deep scars on the parties and their leaders.”

He said trust within the ruling coalition has been broken and Draghi faces a daunting year ahead of the next elections.

Since the last national parliamentary elections in March 2018, Italy's political landscape has shifted dramatically. The maverick anti-establishment 5-Star Movement party took in about 32% of the vote in 2018, but it has imploded after it formed a coalition government with Matteo Salvini's right-wing anti-immigrant League.

In the past year, the far-right Brothers of Italy, which has neo-fascist roots, has seen its support surge under the leadership of Giorgia Meloni. If elections were held today, polls suggest Meloni's party would pick up about 20% of the vote and even edge Salvini's League, which is polling at about 19%, according to Politico's poll tracking. The other major right-wing party, Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia, is stuck at around 8%.

Berlusconi was considered for the job of president, but as the voting got underway he was admitted to hospital and declined to enter the fray. The tycoon and former prime minister is 85.

The big story in 2018 was the collapse of the center-left Democratic Party. In those elections, it got just over 18% of the vote. It's regained its footing and polls show it getting about 21% of the vote. Support for the 5-Stars has dropped to about 14%.

As it stands now, then, a coalition of right- and far-right-wing parties seems to have the best chance of governing Italy after the next round of elections.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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