Napolitano steps back into the breach

Re-election comes after two PD candidates rejected by parliament


Italy’s protracted political stalemate took a dramatic turn on Saturday when a bitterly divided Democratic Party (PD) had to hurriedly appeal to sitting president Giorgio Napolitano (87) to stand for an unprecedented second term.

At the end of a hectic weekend, the expressions on the faces of party leaders, Pier Luigi Bersani of the PD and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi of the People of Freedom party (PDL), said it all. As Mr Napolitano was being announced the winner in parliament, Mr Berlusconi was all smiles, exchanging salutations with his deputies, while across the house Mr Bersani burst into tears.

The re-election of Mr Napolitano came at the end of three days of a bungled election which had seen two PD candidates, former senate speaker Franco Marini and former European Commission president Romano Prodi, rejected by the joint sitting of both houses. Put another way, the PDs managed to twice hit the corner flag from the penalty spot.

Painful blow
The non-election of Mr Prodi on Friday evening had been an especially painful blow since it emerged that one in four PD parliamentarians had voted against him even though his candidacy had prompted a standing ovation at a hurriedly arranged party meeting just hours earlier.

Senior PD figures had been convinced the party was 100 per cent behind Mr Prodi. Such was the tsunami prompted by his defeat that party leader Mr Bersani resigned immediately.

In desperation, the PDs and also the centre-right then appealed to Mr Napolitano to step back into the breach, thus delaying his intended retirement next month when his seven-year term of office expires.

Two obvious considerations prompted this move; first, Mr Napolitano is seen internationally as a guarantor of Italian stability and second, the PDL is willing to work with him despite his centre-left background.

President’s conditions
Mr Napolitano is due to address a joint sitting of the houses this afternoon, outlining the conditions under which he has accepted this presumably shortened (18 months to two years) mandate. Most commentators believe he will do everything within his power to avoid an immediate return to the ballot box arguing that unless the electoral law is changed, any new election would throw up essentially the same hung parliament produced last February.

In other words, Mr Napolitano may be hoping to form some sort of “president’s government”, comprising both PD and PDL forces and led by a former prime minister such as ex-socialist Giuliano Amato. Such a government would be short term, with a programme dominated by austerity and electoral reform and lasting a year to 18 months.

All of this leaves the third force in contemporary Italian politics, the protest M5S movement, out of the reckoning. The M5S still wants to know why the PDs would not vote with them on Saturday to elect its chosen candidate, Stefano Rodotà, a long-time leftist constitutionalist, rather than Mr Napolitano.