And on the sixth ballot, Italy got a new president – or rather it got its old president back again. Giorgio Napolitano has become the first Italian president to be elected to a second term: not due to any universal respect for his talents, but because the politicians were unable to agree on any replacement candidate. (See Saturday’s report for the story as far as the fourth ballot.)
Although Napolitano started out in the Communist Party, the presidential election has been a disastrous affair for Italy’s left. Its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, has promised to stand down this week after the balloting revealed not once but twice his lack of control over his parliamentary followers: first when they failed to support the consensus candidate, Franco Marini, in the first ballot, and again when they failed to support the centre-left’s own Romano Prodi in the fourth ballot.
The reason things got into this mess in the first place was that Bersani had been unable to come to any sort of agreement with the populist 5-Star Movement, which holds the balance of power in the Senate. He certainly tried, but 5-Star leader Beppo Grillo, who claims to hold all politicians in contempt, seemed to have conceived a special dislike for Bersani.
A new centre-left leader – most probably Matteo Renzi, mayor of Florence – might have a better chance of getting the populists on side. But it’s going to be much harder now than a fortnight ago, because the presidential vote, with its sudden last-minute deal between the major parties, is exactly the sort of thing they hate. They were predictably outraged; Grillo described it as “a coup d’etat”.
The centre-left could have supported Grillo’s candidate for president, Stefano Rodotà, a respected law professor and former politician (who led in three of the six ballots, when the major parties abstained), but it was unable to muster the unity even to do that. As Le Monde‘s Italian correspondent, Philippe Ridet, puts it, it preferred “a public avowal of its incapacity”. Napolitano’s election, he says,
symbolises the defeat, not to say the shipwreck, of politics, the manifestation of panic, of lack of imagination. Incapable of agreeing on the name of a candidate, the Italian parliamentarians have shown the measure of their mediocrity. Starting with those on the left who, being the most numerous, should at least have been able to agree on the name of someone to hope to elect.
Some reports suggest that a re-elected Napolitano will now be in a better position to force the politicians to come to terms by threatening fresh elections if no government can be formed. But nothing in the proceedings of the eight weeks since the election suggests that Napolitano (who turns 88 in June) is a man given to decisive action.
A month ago, the centre-left would have had much less to fear from a return to the polls, since it could have blamed Grillo’s populists for the instability. Now, however, the voters would be likely to punish its disunity. That might push Renzi towards a grand coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right forces, which would be a bitter pill to swallow.
Alternatively, he could always offer to let the 5-Star Movement form government. It would at least be entertaining, and they could hardly put on a worse show than the establishment has been doing.