January 5, 2022

On January 24, when Sergio Mattarella’s seven-year term comes to an end, the Italian parliament and its regional representatives will hold a secret ballot to elect the country’s new president and official head of state. Even though the appointment hasn’t garnered much attention outside of Italy, its choice will have wide-ranging implications — not just for Italy but for the entire continent.

It is generally believed that the Italian president performs a purely ceremonial and symbolic role, and throughout most of Italy’s life as a republic this has been largely the case. Italy, after all, is supposed to be a parliamentary democracy, with the government dependent on the confidence of the elected legislature.

And yet, in his official capacity as the “guarantor” or “guardian” of the constitution, the president holds considerable power: governments are required to obtain the “approval” of the president, who also nominates (“approves”) the prime minister and his cabinet ministers. Moreover, all laws passed by parliament have to be approved by the president, and he or she is also charged with signing off the dissolution of parliament, for example following a government crisis and loss of parliamentary majority. This means the president effectively decides whether elections should be held or not.

Nor does the president’s power stop there: the incumbent also ratifies all international treaties, and serves as commander-in-chief of the army and as the head of the governing body of the judiciary. The president also wields influence through the technocratic structures of the Ministry of Economy and Finance, particularly the all-powerful Accounting Office (Ragioneria Generale dello Stato) and the Bank of Italy.

It’s not, therefore, an inconsiderable source of power — especially in times of crisis, when the political system is incapable of delivering viable solutions and the president’s role tends to “expand”. Given the quasi-permanent state of political and economic turbulence that Italy has been mired in for at least a decade, it’s no surprise that the president today has evolved into a full-blooded political actor, with the power (and willingness) to intervene in the country’s decision-making process.

But this transformation has been long in the making, and can be traced back to Italy’s gradual integration into the European Union and the euro, beginning in the early Nineties. For any country, membership of the euro means that the role of government — and therefore of parliament — increasingly becomes that of rubberstamping often unpopular economic decisions taken at the European level. This has inevitably entailed a process of state reconfiguration involving the strengthening of executive and technocratic powers at all levels, including that of the president, and the consequent marginalisation of parliament. Typically, this is presented as a necessary precondition for the swift and efficient implementation of the kind of economic policies enforced by the EU: fiscal austerity, wage moderation, and pro-market liberalisations and privatisations.

Once the choice was made by Italy’s elites to join the euro, it also became necessary to defend their decision from any possible popular-democratic challenges. And so the president’s role was transformed in another way: from guarantor of the constitution to guarantor of the country’s “international obligations”, in particular those to EU treaties and rules. Finally, the transfer of economic prerogatives to the EU meant that political parties, even if they managed to secure a majority in parliament, increasingly found themselves lacking the economic tools necessary to maintain societal consensus.

A system of quasi-permanent social and political instability was born, with the president adopting an increasingly “activist” role in the name of “stability” and “governability”. In short, Italy’s euro membership effectively set in motion a unique case of institutional transition from one form of democracy to another: from a parliamentary regime to a de facto presidential regime in which the legislature performs a marginal role.

This became particularly evident under the double term of Giorgio Napolitano (2006-2015), which coincided with the turbulent era of the post-financial crisis fallout. During that period, Napolitano became the “quiet powerbroker” of Italian politics, with critics referring to him as “Re Giorgio”, or King George. It is generally accepted, for example, that Napolitano played a crucial behind-the-scenes role in the “international coup” — involving, among others, the Bank of Italy, then-president of the ECB Mario Draghi, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy — that led to the downfall of prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his replacement by technocrat Mario Monti, personally chosen by Napolitano himself. Monti’s government was widely referred to as “a government of the president”.

Napolitano’s successor, outgoing president Sergio Mattarella, followed in his footsteps. In 2018, following an alliance between the Five Star Movement and the League, the two parties, as required by the Italian constitution, submitted their choice of government ministers to the president for approval. Yet their proposed economic minister, Paolo Savona, was vetoed by Mattarella due to his euro-critical stance, forcing the two parties to opt for the more status quo-friendly Giovanni Tria. As the law experts Marco Dani and Agustín José Menendez noted at the time, this would seem to point to the existence of “a form of ‘convention’ according to which political parties or coalitions that are critical of the existing economic and monetary arrangements within the eurozone cannot get into government. Or, more accurately, they are entitled to govern [only] in a tamed form”.

More recently, when Matteo Renzi pulled the plug on the Giuseppe Conte’s second government last January, Mattarella refused to dissolve parliament and call for early elections, instead working behind-the-scenes to ensure Conte’s replacement by Draghi, much like Napolitano had done with Monti a decade earlier. Indeed, according to several sources, Mattarella and Draghi were directly involved in the machinations that led Conte to step aside, with Renzi eventually moving away only once he had obtained reassurance from them that the former central banker was ready to step in.

And over the past year, Mattarella has gone out of his way to vocally defend practically every policy of the Draghi government, including the more legally and constitutionally shaky ones — such as the introduction of vaccine passes and a de facto vaccine mandate, as well as the maintenance of a semi-permanent state of emergency and the strengthening of Draghi’s authoritarian and anti-democratic grip on the country. In other words, the president today no longer even pretends to be a neutral arbiter of the constitution. It’s not only taken for granted that he plays a deeply political role, but indeed the Italian elites increasingly expect him to do so: to use his king-like powers to uphold the status quo and keep “the barbarians” at bay, be they euro sceptics or vaccine sceptics.

In light of the above, the importance of the upcoming presidential election comes into sharp focus. With general elections scheduled for 2023 (and the possibility of a Right-wing majority), an unfolding post-pandemic social and economic crisis, growing opposition to draconian Covid measures, and a structural reform agenda which the EU expects Italy to implement in exchange for the meagre Next Generation EU funds, it’s clear that securing a man of the establishment in the role of president is essential for Italy’s pro-EU elites. Long before the pandemic, Draghi was seen as the natural successor to Mattarella. But his appointment as prime minister last February has made a potential transition more complicated.

If Draghi were to be elected president, the parties that make up the coalition government would have to agree on a replacement prime minister to see the government through until the end of the parliamentary term in 2023. However, it is widely believed that without Draghi it would be very hard to ensure the survival of the current “government of national unity”, which includes practically all parties except Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. And since no one (except maybe Meloni, who is currently topping the polls alongside the Democratic Party) wants to go to early elections — and also because dissolving parliament before next September would mean that MPs would lose their hefty annuity pensions — in the secret of the ballot box many MPs might choose to vote down Draghi.

In the unlikely event of early elections, it’s very hard to fathom what the scenario could be: with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia now closer to the liberal-centrist Democratic Party than to its formal allies, the League and Brothers of Italy, securing a Right-wing majority might prove difficult. This opens up the prospect of yet another “technical” or “national unity” government, overseen by Mario Draghi, now in the role of all-powerful king-president.

And this scenario isn’t entirely implausible even if elections aren’t held until 2023. Even for those parties still betting on securing a Right-wing majority at the next elections, there would be a clear advantage in having Draghi as president: the “approval” and “supervision” of the former ECB leader would prove essential in safeguarding the government against any backlashes from financial markets or the European institutions — a fact that in itself says a lot about the democratic implications of euro membership.

Draghi himself recently signalled that he would be willing to become president, and explained that parties shouldn’t worry about future governments straying from the path of neoliberal righteousness: “We have created the conditions for the work to continue, regardless of who is [in government]”, Draghi said, essentially confirming that elections are of relatively little important these days, since the decisions that matter are taken elsewhere, namely in the technocratic apparatuses of the state charged with implementing EU dictates. Whether this will be enough to reassure MPs remains to be seen. Draghi’s election is not, for now, a foregone conclusion.

Another option would be for Draghi to continue serving as prime minister until the end of the current parliament in February 2023. That would allow him to oversee the initial implementation of the EU’s reform agenda while a coalition of parties — potentially comprising the PD, the Five Star Movement, other smaller parties, and maybe even Forza Italia — work on a political platform that would furnish Draghi with a new majority in the next general election. In this case, it’s hard to predict who the next president might actually be. The only person actively campaigning for the election is Silvio Berlusconi, who has always dreamt of becoming president. But it’s unlikely that such a divisive personality will muster the broad support needed to become president.

Some have also posited a “creative” solution to get Draghi elected president while saving the current government: electing Mattarella for a second mandate until 2023 and then have him step down for old age and pass the ball to Draghi. Indeed, in a telling demonstration of just how desperate the Italian establishment is, opera-goers at Milan’s La Scala theatre recently greeted President Sergio Mattarella, who was in the audience, with chants of “bis” and “encore”, imploring him to serve another term.

It was proof that whatever happens in the upcoming presidential election one thing is clear: Italian democracy has become a largely elitist affair, in which warring factions of the establishment vie for power, while the majority of citizens don’t even bother to vote anymore. It’s no surprise that global elites today look to Italy as a model – The Economist even went as far as crowning Italy “country of the year”. Many of its citizens, however, would beg to disagree.

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