Italy re-elects Mattarella as president to end political stalemate

Italian lawmakers have re-elected incumbent president Sergio Mattarella as head of state, ending a week-long stalemate over the selection and ensuring the survival of Mario Draghi’s government.

Mattarella’s re-election, in the eighth round of voting since Monday, came as Draghi’s fragile national unity government appeared in growing danger of collapse, amid tension over the increasingly bitter presidential election.

After Mattarella’s re-election, Draghi called the result “splendid news for Italians.” He added that he was grateful to the president for “his decision to go along with the very strong will of the parliament to re-elect him for a second term”.

A visibly emotional Mattarella declared that “duty to the nation must prevail over my own personal choices”.

A lawyer and former judge, Mattarella, 80, had previously indicated that he was unwilling to serve a second term. But with Rome’s political climate turning poisonous, Draghi, appointed by Mattarella last year amid a deep economic and health crisis, met the president at an official function on Saturday morning and urged him to reconsider in the interests of political stability.

Draghi later called political leaders to encourage them to support Mattarella, an Italian government official told the Financial Times. Politicians from across the spectrum visited the lavish presidential palace Saturday afternoon to formally appeal to Mattarella to serve a second seven year term.

In the Saturday afternoon balloting, Mattarella won the vote of 759 of the 1009 presidential electors — who are members of parliament and regional representatives. When the count crossed the 505 vote threshold needed for victory, the electors rose to their feet and burst into a long round of applause.

“The absolute priority is to secure the country, providing stability through the figure of Mattarella at the Quirinale and Draghi as prime minister, and avoiding at all costs plunging into a period of total chaos,” Daniela Sbrollini, a senator from centrist Italia Viva, told the FT shortly before the vote.

“Asking Mattarella to remain at the Quirinale after he had expressly asked not to be elected shows a certain fragility and weakness of politics,” she said. “But with this stability perhaps the political system can be strengthened.”

A lawmaker from the Five Star movement, who asked not to be named, said: “Everyone across the political spectrum knew very well that Mattarella’s re-election was the only solution that would not hurt anyone, not even Draghi. It is the only solution that crystallises the current equilibrium.”

Mattarella’s re-election will please Italy’s business community and international markets, which had been keeping a close eye on events, fearing that a messy, divisive presidential election could derail the country’s reform momentum.

Italy is set to be the largest recipient of funds from the EU’s €750bn recovery programme, but must meet an ambitious reform timetable to get each tranche of funds. The programme’s toughest reforms were front-loaded into the two years that it was assumed Draghi would be prime minister.

Draghi himself was considered a suitable potential successor to Mattarella, but it was feared that his ascent to the presidency could trigger the collapse of the government and propel Italy to early elections.

“This looks like a great outcome for businesses because it ensures stability and we can count on Draghi to see through the recovery plan,” said one Milan-based executive who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the eighth round of voting.

“Clearly it’s a very bad outcome for Italian political leaders who were not able to find an alternative to Draghi as prime minister, and Mattarella as president.”

Former Italian prime minister Paolo Gentiloni, who now serves as the EU’s commissioner for the economy, tweeted that Mattarella’s re-election was “a very good stability and responsibility.” He added in Latin “per aspera ad astra,” or ‘through hardship to the stars.”

Alessandro Zan, a member of the centre left Democratic Party, said that, “in a situation that risked spiralling out of control, the appeal to President Mattarella was the last card to pull Italy out of the chaos and get back to work.”

Italian lawmakers agreed to file blank ballots in the initial voting rounds this week as they attempted to forge a consensus on a presidential candidate. But the political atmosphere soured on Friday, as Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing League, began pushing to elect favoured political nominees as president over the objections of leftist coalition partners.

Enrico Letta, secretary-general of the Democratic Party, had warned that any unilateral nominations, over the objections of government allies, would “represent the most direct way of blowing everything up”.

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