Three European presidents

Italy today begins the process of electing a new president, to replace incumbent Sergio Mattarella – who is eligible for a second seven-year term, but at the age of 80 has chosen to retire.

Last week we looked at the debate over direct vs indirect election of a future Australian president. Italy is a classic example of how indirect election works: the president is chosen by an assembly consisting of both houses of parliament plus representatives of the regions. Three attempts are made to get a two-thirds majority (by secret ballot); from the fourth ballot onwards, only a simple absolute majority, or 505 votes, is required.

It would be a bad model for Australia, because with our single-member districts and two-party system it would not be very unusual for one party to have a majority in the assembly. But in multi-party Italy, it means that a fairly high degree of consensus is required.

So far, no such consensus has settled on a candidate. There was one high-profile candidate, namely veteran centre-right leader Silvio Berlusconi, but at the weekend he withdrew from consideration. He presented this as a gesture in favor of national unity – “another step on the path of national responsibility” – but it appears that health problems may also have been a factor (he is 85 and currently in hospital).

The other name most often mentioned is current prime minister Mario Draghi. He appeals to many politicians for the same reasons that he appealed to them a year ago as prime minister: he is capable, experienced and non-aligned, all good qualities for a president as well.

But he can’t do both jobs, and prime minister is much more important. If Draghi were to be elected president, the parties would have to somehow agree on another prime minister; that would almost certainly fracture the existing grand coalition, possibly forcing a fresh election. Most of them seem to be coming around to the view that that would be much too high a price to pay.

Spain took that risk back in 1936 when Manuel Azaña, who had led the Popular Front to victory earlier that year and become prime minister, decided to transfer to the presidency. The fact that his successors in government lacked his stature is sometimes regarded as one of the factors contributing to their defeat in the Spanish Civil War; Azaña, like most of his colleagues, ended his days in exile after the fascist victory.

Italy is unlikely to face such momentous consequences, but with two far-right parties still attracting nearly 40% between them in the opinion polls, it is not really in a position to take unnecessary risks. Better to find a more innocuous name for the presidency.

No such trouble in Germany, which will conduct a similar election next month, scheduled for 13 February. Its president is chosen by a convention consisting of the members of the lower house of federal parliament, plus an equal number of delegates from the state parliaments, in proportion to their populations. An absolute majority is required for the first or second ballot, and from that point only a plurality.

But there’s no uncertainty about the outcome this time. Incumbent Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a Social Democrat, is standing for re-election, and has the support of the three parties in the current federal government plus the opposition centre-right, guaranteeing him a huge majority. Only the far left and far right are expected to oppose him.

And in other president-related news, the European parliament also has a new president, although there the position is a presiding officer, or speaker, not a head of state. Roberta Metsola, from the Maltese centre-right, was elected last week, following the death in office of her predecessor, David Sassoli.

Metsola, 43, is the youngest person to hold the job, and the first from Malta to reach such high office in the EU. As usual, though, her election was the product of consensus among the mainstream political groups: she was backed by centre-right, centre-left and liberals, and she won with 458 votes (out of a total 705) on the first ballot.

Since those three groups have 422 members between them, it seems she also got some votes from the Eurosceptic group ECR, which withdrew its candidate late in the piece. Her only opponents were from the Greens and the far left, with 101 and 57 votes respectively; the far-right group with its 70 MPs evidently abstained.


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