Europe

Italians Vote for a President. Here’s Why It Matters.

ROME — A joint session of Italian parliament and some regional delegates, known as “great electors,” began a secret ballot on Monday to elect the next Italian president to replace the current office holder, Sergio Mattarella, as the country’s head of state.

Though always an occasion for intense, behind-the-scenes politicking, the election is also normally a routine affair that happens every seven years. This time, however, it is a focus of special attention because a top contender for the job is the prime minister, Mario Draghi, a titan of Europe who in just a year in power has stabilized Italy’s politics and initiated long-overdue overhauls.

If elected, Mr. Draghi would be the first prime minister to ascend to the job. His exit as prime minister, where he has his hand on the day-to-day running of the government, in favor of the more ceremonial role of the president, many Italians fear, could return the country to more fractured and chaotic politics, risking all that he has set in motion. But his supporters argue that as president Mr. Draghi could provide an extended, stabilizing influence. Not electing him, they say, is the much greater risk.

The Italian president has become increasingly important in Italy in recent decades, as the politics have become more fragmented and chaotic. The president, beyond exercising moral authority, is charged with protecting the Italian Constitution and is imbued with enormous powers during a political crisis.

The president has the authority to select the prime minister, as Mr. Mattarella did in choosing Mr. Draghi a year ago to help the country out of a political crisis. The president has the authority to approve or deny the appointment of other government ministers, too. The president can also deny mandates to weak coalitions and dissolve parliament.

Technically, the president presides over the courts and acts as commander in chief, though that authority is rarely invoked. As the figure who represents the guardrails of Italian democracy and the Constitution — which includes articles about balancing budgets and maintaining obligations to Europe — the president has a say in economic and foreign policy decisions he or she finds unconstitutional.

In the past, when the media mogul Silvio Berlusconi — who also coveted the top job before dropping out over the weekend — was prime minister, President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi vetoed judicial reform passed by the government that would have eased Mr. Berlusconi’s legal travails, calling it “clearly unconstitutional.”

This election is especially tense, and critical, because so much more is at stake — including the stability and longevity of the current Italian government, the possibility of early elections and political chaos that could jeopardize tens of billions of euros in European relief funds and the composition of Italy’s future political coalitions.

“This is not a decision only on the president,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, an expert in the Italian political system at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome.

If the electors fail to rally around a consensus candidate, and the election becomes a source of division between the left and the right, Mr. Draghi has himself said it is hard to imagine how the same warring political parties could “magically” reassemble to keep running the government. In other words, a government divided over a president cannot stand.

A collapse of the government would not only endanger Italy’s overhauls but also potentially ripple instability through the European Union, which has heavily bet on Italy’s success, bankrolling its reforms with billions of euros.

But Mr. Draghi’s supporters say that if he is chosen to become president in a new but similar government — perhaps led by a technocrat — it would be the best of both worlds and provide stability until the scheduled national elections in February 2023.

Political leaders are trying to see whether it is possible to elevate Mr. Draghi to president, but also reach a simultaneous deal that keeps the current broad national unity coalition in place, though with more political players in ministries where they can have more visibility and start rebuilding political support ahead of the upcoming elections.

But it would be another thing entirely if the government collapses as a casualty of the political standoff between the left and the right over the presidency, and the battling parties, despite their own interests, prompt early elections.

Even short of that disaster scenario, this week’s elections have the potential to create enough bad blood and vendettas to potentially shift political allegiances and disrupt existing coalitions. A shake-up in Mr. Draghi’s government, or one much like it, has the potential to alter the balance of power among Italy’s parties.

This election is also especially important because it will most likely determine the future of Mr. Draghi, a heavyweight of Europe, who has presided over a period of stability in Italian politics and good governance.

Mr. Draghi’s supporters argue that making him president for seven years rather than keeping him as prime minister for a few more months would provide Italy with long-term stability and increased status that should calm markets, which have shown jitters at the prospect of his leaving his job as prime minister.

This is especially the case, they argue, because his government has already put in place the country’s major economic plans for the coming years by moving quickly ahead on projects and reforms essentially bankrolled by 200 billion euros in European recovery funds that no one wants to jeopardize.

Some who argue the government cannot do without Mr. Draghi, hope that Mr. Mattarella will stay for another couple of years, and then leave early, opening up the spot to Mr. Draghi at a less politically fraught time.

The process to pick the president is as byzantine as the politics. It is full of pomp and ritual. The ballots are secret, but so, in a way, are the nominees — electors can vote for any Italian over age 50 without a criminal record, and no one actually declares his or her candidacy.

It is in this way much like a papal conclave, where the old saying is that whoever enters as pope leaves as a cardinal.

Because of Covid precautions, voting will be held in rounds of 50 to prevent overcrowding in the chamber. In the past, electors placed their secret vote inside wooden tombstone-shaped boxes called “catafalques,” draped with velvet curtains. But this year, they are being replaced by more Covid-unfriendly booths equipped with sanitizing ultraviolet light that will be unveiled an hour before the vote.

Voters deposit a piece of paper into a large urn line with green satin and covered in wrought, dark wicker and gilded details. It is nicknamed the “salad bowl.”

Because of Covid restrictions, only one vote will be held a day. A Green Pass, Italy’s health pass for the vaccinated and the recently swabbed, is required to vote. The infected electors will be allowed to vote in a parking lot next to Parliament.

The first three ballots require a candidate to reach 673 votes, or a two-thirds majority of the 1009 electors, which is unlikely in the best of times, and now, with such political fragmentation, considered essentially impossible. Still, the first three ballots are important for the parties to test how compact their members are.

The fourth vote, and in this case the fourth day, is when things are expected to get interesting.

An absolute majority of 505 votes is all that is required to choose a president at that point. The parties hope that by then, they will have come to terms and agreed on someone. But it can go on and on for days. One year, it took Italy 23 ballots to pick a president.

If the voting continues past the end of Mr. Mattarella’s term, which ends on Feb. 3, and especially much beyond that, then it would be clear that Italy’s seemingly ceremonial presidential election has become an exit for Mr. Draghi’s period of stability and a gateway to political disaster.

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