Earlier this week (14th January 2015) Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Republic of Italy, signed his resignation letter and moved out of the presidential palace to start his long anticipated retirement. His departure leaves Prime Minister Matteo Renzi with the unenviable headache of overseeing the selection of a successor. So as the Italian media goes into overdrive with opinion polls, graphs and panels of experts, just what does it all mean? Here’s what I know!
Its no great surprise that the 89 year-old Napolitano has finally retired. Normally presidents only serve one 7-year term, but Napolitano had reluctantly agreed to stay on in 2013 to stabilize the then chaotic political situation. He had made it clear, however, that he would not serve the entire 7 years of a second term and reiterated the point recently at New Year, saying he wanted a rest which I’d say is fair for a nearly 90 year old!
True to his word, Napolitano waited until Italy’s 6-month presidency of the European Union had finished at the end of 2014 before finally confirming his intention to stand down and heading home to his own apartment on Via Dei Serpenti (Road of the Snakes!) this week as the presidential flag was taken down on Palazzo Quirinale.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced Napolitano’s impending departure in the European Parliament saying “I would like to thank Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Republic and committed Europhile, who will in fact stand down within the next few hours with a long list of achievements to his credit” and tweeted his thanks.
And now, Renzi must oversee the selection process. He could propose a candidate, if he thought he would get enough parliamentary support. But given the splintered political context, Renzi has, instead, opted for presidential elections, voted for solely by politicians, starting in 2 weeks on 29th January. A series of rounds of votes will take place in the lower and upper chambers of parliament until a new president is chosen with at least two thirds of the votes.
In reality the President has very little practical responsibility over the day-to-day politics of the country being a largely ceremonial post. The president is the head of the armed forces and can reject laws that are considered unconstitutional but the key powers that have come to be essential in the chaotic Italian political arena are the power to choose the Prime Minister and to dissolve parliament. In 2011, for example, Napolitano was praised for using his presidential powers to dismiss Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi at the height of Italy’s debt crisis to avoid a bailout. And, this month, as the politicians prepare to go to the ballot box, its clear that Italy needs a president who will be able to arbitrate between the various bickering parties in order to help the country recover and grow.
Needless to say, Italian media circus is in full swing with special live broadcasts following Napolitano and his wife Clio as they left the presidential palace. And since Wednesday many channels have changed their evening schedules to make space for long debates and discussion of all the issues, candidates and potential implications. If you’re in Italy at the moment, you can’t have missed the debates or the newspaper headlines.
Candidates themselves are still being quite coy over their ambitions with some waiting to see if they have enough support before showing their hand. Several names have been thrown into the ring, some more likely to succeed than others, but after a run of relatively left-leaning presidents over the last few years – Napolitano was an ex communist himself – the centre and right are calling for their turn! So who might we see moving into the small presidential apartment in the Palazzo Quirinale?
There had been a little excitement that Italian politicians might usher in some young blood or even elect Italy’s first female president. But hopes of that seem to be fading as some commentators even suggest that lawmakers will use the secret ballot to settle political grievances and bring the same old familiar names float to the top of the pile. Having said that, the list of favourites is still pretty fluid and, if you believe the media, changing every day. Here are some of today’s favourites, in no particular order, to give you an idea of the calibre of candidates.
Walter Veltroni, ex-mayor of Rome, is a relative youngster at 59. He has served his city, as an MP and as an MEP as well as being culture minister and vice president of parliament. Many are citing him as one of the front runners. (BTW Walter Veltroni presided over the marriage of George Clooney and Amal Alamuddin in Venice last year.)
Ignazio Visco is a lifelong economist, having joined the Bank of Italy in 1972 and risen through the ranks to become governor. In his current role he is regularly involved in financial decision-making at European and international levels.
Sergio Mattarella, a Sicilian lawyer from Palermo, is currently a judge at Italy’s Constitutional Court. He has also had a lengthy political career, as education minister, defence minister and vice president of parliament. At 73, he is one of the older potential candidates.
Piero Fassino, currently Turin’s mayor, Fassino has been a councilor since 1975, and served as the undersecretary for foreign affairs, minister of foreign trade and justice minister whilst in parliament.
Giuliano Amato, another former prime minister, is still in contention. Two-time premier Amato, who helped draft the EU Constitution, is a highly respected institutional lawyer who was also a trusted aide of late Socialist premier Bettino Craxi and a close friend of Berlusconi who protected his burgeoning TV empire in the 1980s.
Pier Carlo Padoan, Renzi’s current Finance & Economy Minister, is a Professor of Economics. He has served as an economic adviser to Prime Ministers D’Alema and Amato, worked for the International Monetary Fund and consulted for the World Bank, European Commission and European Central Bank.
Others who have apparently already ruled themselves out include Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, Romano Prodi, another former Prime Minister and ex-president of the European Commission and Emma Bonino, ex-foreign minister, former European commissioner for humanitarian aid and fierce feminist. Bonini would have been a great candidate as she commands huge respect across the political parties but she has recently announced she has lung cancer taking her out of the running.
Meanwhile, whilst no elected candidate is in post, the President of the Aula (parliament) has taken over the position of President of the Republic, whilst his Vice President has taken over as President of the Aula. These appointments are only temporary, however, until the new candidate is voted in, and the interim president will only step in if needed to oversee new legislation or state visits etc.
So as Re Giorgio, King George to his critics, reverts back to being a private citizen (albeit a life senator), settles back into his old flat on Via dei Serpenti and dons his slippers and comfy cardigan, who will the politicians choose? Certainly Napolitano was the longest serving president in the history of the republic of Italy and had decent approval rates, well, for a politician anyway. And a replacement is needed quickly. Failure to elect a president is unthinkable and could even cause Renzi to call early general elections, mirroring the political crisis in neighbouring Greece. But it remains to be seen whether the next candidate will unite the country or cause more schisms? Let the voting begin….