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ROME – In the weeks leading up to Italy’s presidential election, President Sergio Mattarella made it clear that he was retiring.
But after nearly a week of political stalemate and infighting that exposed deep divisions in the ruling coalition, Mattarella was forced to remain in office for the sake of stability. His decision averts the imminent threat of early elections. After the votes for Mattarella reached a majority of 505, deputies in the Chamber of Deputies stood clapping and exchanging fives. Internet memes in Italy on Saturday portrayed Matarella as a prank hostage.
Parliament and regional delegates began voting on Monday to find a successor to Mattarella, whose seven-year term expires on February 3.
The president has the power to appoint prime ministers and governments and has broad powers in times of crisis. The left has had the advantage over the past three decades. But this time with neither right-wing nor left-wing blocs able to lead a majority, lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement on a unit figure.
With Italy in the midst of a punishing fourth wave of COVID and facing the dual challenge of protecting the economic recovery and implementing the EU’s Post-Pandemic Investment Fund, pressure has been mounting on political leaders to avoid the impasse the country cannot afford.
With party leaders failing to make headway, rebel lawmakers increasingly backed Mattarella in the daily ballot, with the vote tally rising from 125 on Wednesday to 387 in the first round on Saturday. In the end, Mattarella received 759 of 1,009 possible votes.
After six failed rounds of voting, Prime Minister Mario Draghi stepped in and asked Mattarella to stay in office, according to a person familiar with the situation, and lobbied party leaders to join the plan.
Party representatives officially went to the presidential palace to submit an appeal to Mattarella. “Given the situation, we begged him to stay for another term,” Senator Julia Unterberger said. Mattarella said he has “other plans for his future”, but given the situation he will make himself available, Unterberger said.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, said unity “can only be found today around the figure of President Sergio Mattarella, from whom we know we are asking for a great sacrifice”.
Supporters saw the strengthening of Italy’s position. “It’s a net win for Italy,” said centrist MP Bruno Tabacci. “In the G20 last year, all the other countries recognized the reliable leadership of Draghi and Mattarella. Now their leadership has confirmed that the government is in a position to meet the requirements of Europe, manage this sensitive phase of COVID and restart the economy.
“You can’t change the winning team,” said regional delegate Dino Latini. “It can be seen as not very innovative, but with this decision Parliament, the government and the image of Italy have all been saved.”
Mattarella’s election means that Draghi will remain as prime minister, avoiding early elections. Draghi himself was considered a candidate, but failed to gain broad party support due to the difficulty of finding an alternative prime minister who could lead the same ruling majority. The main obstacle has been parliamentarians’ concern about early elections, after which many expect to lose their seats due to reductions in the size of Parliament.
Giorgio Fede, a senator from the 5-Star Movement, said it was a mistake to elect Draghi. “It wasn’t the right moment for there to be a political crisis,” he said.
“Draghi got a job, managing the pandemic and recovery fund, both of which are still in place today, so it is right that he be allowed to continue his work,” Fede said.
Not everyone saw the result as positive. The Italian brothers voted against Mattarella. 5Star Senator Sergio Romagnoli said that while Mattarella is “very capable,” the decision represented a “failure of policy.”
Romagnoli noted that the 5-Star Movement failed in its attempt to elect Italy’s first female president. We would prefer a woman. We had the opportunity to turn the page, creating new energy. But we had to work together to come to an agreement.
With the election over, Draghi must attempt to rebuild his difficult coalition, a not easy task after confidence has collapsed. Having failed to gain support from all sides, Draghi’s standing has taken a heavy blow, but his decision to be part of the solution is likely to help him regain power.
Reorganization is likely to be required. On Saturday night, 5-star leader Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini asked the League to hold talks with Draghi to clarify the government’s program and identify new priorities.
Maurizio Gaspari, a senator in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, said the coalition forces would need a little time to return to normal, but he was confident they would remain until the end of the legislature. “It is necessary to deal with emergencies,” he said.