The end of an Italian president

Amid ongoing economic and political chaos, it now looks as though Italy may lose its president. Could anything else go wrong?

Waving goodbye?
Tim Hedges
On 12 November 2014 09:00

The Italian newspapers are full of the story that the President, Giorgio Napolitano, is about to resign and, as with the election of a new pope, the betting has already started on his replacement. They are even using the word ‘papabile’ for those considered possible.

The mood in the country, however, is downbeat. The President is elected not by the people, but by an electoral college of around 1,000, consisting of MPs, senators and regional representatives. He is a creature of the political class.

Since there has been no general election since the last presidential vote, the same people who could not agree before are still there, elected by a system which has been outlawed by the Constitutional Court. One cannot help but feel that Italy is not about to cover itself in glory.

The job itself is fairly desirable. It comes with a salary of nearly €300,000, a seven year tenure, one of the most impressive palaces in the world in the Quirinale, a yacht, a plane, a farmhouse in Tuscany and the Villa Roseberry in Naples which once belonged to a British Prime Minister.

It is easy to see why Giorgio Napolitano is going. He was born, appropriately enough in Naples, in 1925 when Mussolini was Prime Minister but not yet outright Fascist Leader. Napolitano is older than Queen Elizabeth, and not blessed with such good health. He takes a cocktail of medicines and sleeps badly.

Napolitano joined the Italian Communist Party at the end of the war and has been at the front line of politics since his election to Parliament in 1953. He is, understandably, tired. He will have served as President for nine years and seen five Prime Ministers.

Napolitano’s presidency has been unique. He was elected in May 2006 and in 2008 Silvio Berlusconi returned to power, the last time Italy had a Prime Minister elected by the people. The two leaders were some distance away from agreeing on anything, whether it be politics, economics or personal life and their relationship was uneasy.

In 2011, with the help of European leaders, Napolitano oversaw the defenestration of Berlusconi and the appointment of Mario Monti as head of a technocrat government. The nation raised an eyebrow – no more – at what seemed a blatantly political act from an office which was supposed to be largely ceremonial. The President acquired the sobriquet ‘King Giorgio’.

It might have been better of Monti had been any good but his idea of reducing public expenditure seemed to be the Government not paying its suppliers, causing hundreds of thousands of unemployed as the companies went bust. The supposed technocrat Prime Minister then got a taste for politics and threw himself into the fray in the 2013 elections, failing miserably.

The ensuing chaos meant there could be no agreement on a new President and Napolitano agreed to serve a further term, the first President to do so. He appointed Enrico Letta as Prime Minister, but he wasn’t much good either, and when he was overthrown by his own party Napolitano appointed Matteo Renzi.

Napolitano is the first President to have had to give evidence in a criminal case: the accusation of a deal between the Government and the mafia. His evidence was given in secret.

So Napolitano is hardly a great loss but people are nervous as to who will replace him. Around twenty-five names have been mentioned as ‘papabile’. It is thought that Renzi will go for someone who is not of the old guard, perhaps a woman. Whether the land of scantily clad gameshow hostesses is ready for a woman President we cannot be sure, but half the cabinet are women.

Napolitano is likely to announce his departure at the end of the year (also the end of Italy’s rotating presidency of the EU) and insist he is out by his 90th birthday in June.

We have no clues as to King Giorgio’s likely replacement but some are whispering the name of Roberta Pinotti, currently Minister of Defence. Another possibility is Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, who is thought to have grown tired of wrangling with the Germans.

It would not be abnormal in Italian politics for a name to emerge from nowhere. The key is not for the candidate to be the perfect choice but to be not unacceptable to the people who matter: Renzi, Berlusconi, Grillo and the Old Left of the Democratic Party. It is going to take a lot of searching.

Without mourning the loss of the incumbent I have to say this is another upheaval which Italy really doesn’t need right now.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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