Italy’s ageing president resigns as country grasps at stability

Giorgio Napolitano is out – but who is in? EPA

Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s 89-year-old president, has resigned from the office he has held for nearly a decade. His departure will prompt a secret ballot among parliamentarians to replace him. But this is not likely to be an easy job, since the Italian parliament is currently rife with disagreement and dissatisfaction.

Originally elected in 2006, Napolitano reluctantly accepted re-election in 2013 because a highly polarised parliament could not guarantee the required absolute majority to any successor. In his inaugral address, Napolitano warned that his resuming office was only a temporary solution to the problem.

In a couple of weeks, 950 members of the Italian Parliament and 58 representatives of the regions will meet in a bid to succeed in the task that eluded them less than two years ago. The election of a new president is the proof they need to prove that the Italian government is not crumbling.

What’s the president for?

Some believe the Italian presidency is little more than a ceremonial role, but the chief of state is actually assigned substantial powers in the Italian Constitution.

Presidents can, for example, hand lifelong positions in the senate to up to five people and appoint members to the Constitutional Court. They can also ask parliament to reconsider a bill before it becomes law. Since the constitution came into force in 1948, presidents including Luigi Einaudi and Giovanni Gronchi jealously guarded their autonomy from the executive power in order to continue fulfilling these functions.

What’s more, Italian governments are traditionally unstable and the political scene notoriously fragmented. There have been 63 governments since 1946, and since the political crisis of the early 1990s, majorities have been more and more fragile, composed of up to 20 different parliamentary groups. Against this backdrop, the president represents a rare centre of institutional continuity.

Napolitano, in particular, has pushed the limits of his authority. He used the highest degree of power on offer to him when trying to bring in effective governance before the debt crisis of 2011-12 and during the hung parliament deadlock that emerged after the 2013 elections.

In the running

The prestige of the presidential office naturally attracts some top names to the job and several potentials have been identified in the run up to Napolitano’s departure.

Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, is thought to be a strong candidate, even though he himself denies being in the running. Draghi is internationally respected and his election to the presidency would reassure the European establishment that a reliable guardian for Italian economic and fiscal discipline was taking the helm. He may find less support in Italy itself though, where growing impatience with austerity policies could act as a major obstacle to his appointment.

Romano Prodi, Italy’s prime minister between 1996-1998 and 2006-2008, as well as president of the European Commission from 1999 to 2004, came close to election in 2013, and could find support again. But Forza Italia’s leader Silvio Berlusconi, Prodi’s main political opponent in 1996-2006, is openly hostile to his candidacy for the role and his veto may be decisive.

Romano Prodi came close to election in 2013. Presidenza della Repubblica

A low-profile political figure is instead more likely to receive votes from the required number of electors. The moderately left Democratic Party, which is currently the most powerful force in parliament, could draft in one of its former secretaries to take the job, for example.

Potential candidates from these quarters include Walter Veltroni, who has strong ties to new party leader and prime minister Matteo Renzi. Other options include Franco Bassanini, who made a name for himself in the 1990s for making important reforms to intrusive public bureaucracy. Or Sergio Chiamparino, who was a popular mayor of Turin during the 2006 Winter Olympics and is now president of Piedmont, is another with a chance at election. A group of parliamentarians allegedly close to Renzi timidly advanced his candidacy in 2013. Now, more electors may back him.

Lost faith

Whichever of these men emerge as candidates, it will be difficult to find a president with support from a broad range of sources. In fact, the major leaders won’t even been voting in this election. Both Renzi and Beppe Grillo, founder of the radically populist Movimento 5 Stelle, have decided not to run for a parliamentary seat in 2013 general elections, so won’t be eligible to vote. Berlusconi, for his part, lost his seat in the senate after being convicted of tax fraud, so won’t be able to take part in the vote either.

Renzi could do with a friend. EPA

What’s more, the party leaders are all likely to find it difficult to impose their preference on the parliamentary groups when it comes to casting votes since each faces internal opposition to their policy agenda. The secret ballot by which a president is elected will allow members of parliament to express their discontent by disregarding the will of their leaders.

Renzi has been widely criticised by the traditional left for his attempts to give the Democratic Party a business-friendly image, and Grillo is facing growing criticism for the lack of internal democracy in the Movimento 5 Stelle. In Forza Italia, some accuse Berlusconi of taking care of his own interests above those of the party he founded.

The eventual winner will work with Renzi and his ministers on the final parliamentary passage of two crucial political reforms. A new electoral law should introduce a second round between the two largest parties to make sure one has a super-majority of 55% of the seats.

And a constitutional bill could substantially modify Italy’s two-chambers system by transforming the senate into an assembly for the representation of local governments, with no vote of confidence.

But the new president will first of all have to face the growing protests against unpopular recent labour market reforms, which unions consider a further step towards the total “precarisation” of work.

So Napolitano’s successor will have his work cut out – and Italy’s politics show little sign of fully stabilising any time soon.