White smoke from Rome? Italy votes for a President

The name on everyone’s lips for the Italian presidency is Franco Marini - an 80 year old former trade unionist centre-left MP

The 80 year-old Franco Marini
Tim Hedges
On 18 April 2013 11:27

I often marvel at the different systems people call ‘democracy’. Of course it simply means ‘rule by the people’ but you may be sure, for example, that the people of the Democratic Republic of North Korea, however much they may feel the government may be on their side, don’t wake up, after a closely fought political struggle, to the thrill of finding out if there will be a new leader and guessing who it might be.

Among Western Democracies the systems are reassuringly similar for the election of the lower house and upper house (most, not Britain, have an elected second chamber representing the regions) but the methods of choosing a Head of State differ. In Britain the office is hereditary but has no power; in France it is by popular mandate and has immense power; In Italy the President is elected by around 1,000 people in a sort of conclave, similar to the German Bundesversammlung, made up of elected national representatives and appointed regional delegates.

Whilst the system has worked well in the past – the last three presidents have been excellent and commanded tremendous public respect – there have been fears expressed that when the president has to exert political power, such as when there is a political standoff, the rather cosy club-like meeting of the political caste may be seen as denying political change: these people have no interest in seeing their world upset.

Such a time of upheaval is upon us now. President Napolitano, a decent man, thought it was his duty to resolve the stalemate between Berlusconi’s Centre-right, Bersani’s centre-left and Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment 5-star movement, but he has been unable to do so. The Constitution bars him from calling new elections so near to his own last day in office, so he has begged the parties to come to some agreement at least over a new president who will then try to resolve the struggle and failing, as he probably will, call for the people to return to the polls (‘alle urne!).

The first day of elections for president is today, Thursday April 18th. The conclave will hold two votes a day (the papal conclave was able to manage four, but the cardinals are more experienced at politics). For the first few ballots a two-thirds majority is required, but after that a simple majority. If Napolitano has pushed the parties into an agreement the result could be quick.

It seemed for a while that such an agreement may have excluded Beppe Grillo and his movement, in part because he eschews agreement and in part because the longer established parties don’t like seeing their world turned upside down. Grillo held an internet poll of his members for their candidates and announced ten. His favoured one, a distinguished journalist, declined the offer; he then proposed Stefano Rodotà, a former left-wing MP and senior jurist. It was an astute recommendation.  Rodotà has shown himself to be popular with a part of the centre-left PD party and there are fears that the left’s vote could be split.

But really, if agreement there is, it looks like it is going to be between Bersani and Berlusconi, the two arch rivals. Grillo calls this ‘Bersani suiciding his country by dealing with the psycho-dwarf’ (Italian politics is nothing if not colourful), and hints that Berlusconi may have done some deal to protect himself from the courts.

The name on everyone’s lips is Franco Marini, favoured by Bersani and apparently agreed by Berlusconi, Monti and the Lega Nord. Marini is an 80 year old (the presidency term is 7 years) former trade unionist from the Abruzzo, centre-left MP and speaker of the senate. He is said to be a devout Christian and goes under the romantic sobriquet ‘the marsican wolf’, referring to the area in which he was born, since he goes it alone, perhaps at the head of a small pack, and is ready to strike with his teeth when necessary. How sharp those teeth are at 80 we cannot know.

Many, myself included, would have liked someone younger, a less traditional figure to represent the changed political structure of Italy. But perhaps that is not what is required for this particular post; perhaps it is the opposite of The Leopard’s dictum and that everything must stay the same so that everything can change.

The position of President certainly requires careful handling; some have done it well, some badly. Sandro Pertini, 1978-85, is often thought of as the greatest Italian President, holding the country together at the time of the Red Brigade bombings (the ‘anni di piombo’, years of lead); his successor Francesco Cossiga was often thought to be mad (and he once shrieked “I am the fake madman who tells the truth”, rather confirming people in this view).

Since then Scalfaro, Ciampi and Napolitano, all of different political backgrounds, have met with enormous respect. If there is one thing that has united them it is that they have tried to guide the country without involving themselves in politics. They have set the tone for the nation and spoken to the people over the heads of the politicians. The Italians love them for it and hold the office in great honour.

What sort of tone could a new president set? Europe, or rather involvement in the EU, has been a traditional note, but now it is too contentious, with two-thirds of the popular vote having gone to parties promising a referendum. The economic crisis everyone accepts without agreeing what to do about it.

It will be a tough job.

Tim Hedges is a weekly columnist for the Commentator. He previously worked in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer and novelist

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