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24 January 2022

Italians (but not all of them) go to the polls

The convoluted process could be decisive for Europe's third-largest economy.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – The first round of voting for Italy’s next president opened on Monday (24 January). A joint session of parliament, comprising the upper and lower houses as well as 58 regional electors convened to decide who should be president for the next seven years after incumbent Sergio Mattarella ruled himself out of the race.

The process for selecting the Italian president is convoluted. Candidates are not nominated. All of the roughly 1,000 so-called great electors will write the name of an eligible person (over 50 years old; holding Italian citizenship; holding the right to vote) on a secret ballot. There are no nominations, so unserious names such as the actress Sophia Loren or the former Italian football coach Giovanni Trapattoni almost always receive a handful of votes in the first rounds of voting.

A two-thirds majority is required for a candidate to win in the first three rounds of voting; thereafter, a simple majority is sufficient. There is no limit to how long the process can be drawn out if no candidate manages to gain the requisite support: in 1971, it took 23 rounds of voting for Giovanni Leone to be selected. The vote will be even more drawn out than usual because of Covid-19 restrictions on how many lawmakers may cast their ballots at one time.

The presidency is a position which is mostly ceremonial but can take on significance in moments of crisis, when the head of state is empowered to dissolve parliament, grant mandates to form a government and appoint technical cabinets.

Two names currently stand out. The first is Mario Draghi, the current prime minister and former governor of the European Central Bank. Draghi, 74, is likely in the strongest position, but questions remain about what would happen to the broad-based government he currently leads if he became head of state. When he took the job as PM, in February, he indicated he only wanted to do it for a limited time. It is uncertain whether the current coalition, which spans parties of the left to Matteo Salvini’s far-right, could hold under another leader, as Tim Parks pointed out in a recent article for the New Statesman.

The second is Mattarella, who, though he has said he does not want another term, might be convinced to run again if several rounds of voting fail to elect a successor. This would follow a precedent set in 2013, when Giorgio Napolitano was persuaded to stay on for another term following five rounds of deadlocked votes, wrote Nicholas Whithorn for the European Consortium for Political Research.

One name which likely won’t make it through the convoluted electoral process is Silvio Berlusconi, the billionaire former prime minister, who withdrew from the race this weekend. He was never likely to have been able to muster the broad base of support needed, notably from the left, which the winning candidate would need.

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The outcome of the vote over the next days – perhaps stretching to weeks if electors are deadlocked – could be decisive for the EU’s third-largest economy as Europe faces multiple crises, from the Omicron wave of Covid-19 to Russian forces massing on Ukraine’s borders.

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