What next in Italian politics

James Walston examines the re-election of Giorgio Napolitano as president of Italy for a second term in office.

 We also print the text of his blog below.

 For a brief moment, the helterskelter is in a trough, calm and waiting for the next climb to be followed inevitably by another downward hurtle.

Yesterday Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party (PD) and the other traditional parties did not know where to turn so one by one they went up the Hill (the President’s palace on the Quirinal hill is known as “Il Colle” or “the highest hill in Rome”) to beg the 87 year Giorgio Napolitano to get them out of the mess. Most accounts confirm that it was Bersani who convinced Napolitano by telling him that no one else could guarantee a united PD vote. After the two very loud failures of Thursday and Friday, the party and more importantly, the country could not afford another open wound and inconclusive ballot.

Silvio Berlusconi and the People of Freedom (PdL) added their support along with the centrist Mario Monti (Civic Choice, SC) and even the Northern League’s (LN) Roberto Maroni. The PD’s ally, Nichi Vendola’s Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL) decided to vote for the Five Star Movement (M5S)’s candidate Stefano Rodotà.

After lunch, Napolitano said that he accepted the candidature and by late afternoon, the count confirmed that Napolitano had won 738 out of 997 votes. This is the first time that an Italian president has been re-elected. There is no constitutional ban on a second term but none of Napolitano’s ten predecessors had used the possibility so that most constitutionalists presumed that there was an unwritten amendment prohibiting a second term.

Tomorrow he will be sworn in and has promised to set his own terms for his second presidency. Most likely he will set a time limit and make it very clear that the condition for him to stay on is that there is a reliable government. But whatever conditions he does put on himself and the politicians, they will be self-imposed. For the moment, he has a 7 year mandate limited only by the constitution.
After the result, there was exultation in the centre-right; Napolitano has been very supportive of Berlusconi both with regard to his prosecutions and to the idea of a PdL-PD coalition. There was quiet satisfaction from Monti and relief from Bersani. The left of the PD, SEL and of course Grillo and the M5S were furious.

Grillo’s immediate reaction was to call the vote a “coup” and say that he was coming to Rome and hoped for a million people on the streets when he arrived. His own supporters were forced to backtrack on the leader and admit that a regular vote in Parliament was hardly a coup d’état and the whisper of the phrase “march on Rome” with its explicit Fascist association forced him to delay his arrival and cancel the nightime demo. Still, there will be one this afternoon. The M5S candidate, Stefano Rodotà is a lawyer, former member of Parliament and former head of a public watchdog agency and a man of the left; not surprisingly he condemned Grillo’s clearly, quickly and forcefully.

The “coup” and “march on Rome” were only slight hiccoughs in Grillo’s continuing success. He could not have hoped for more than an alliance between the centre-right and a terminally fractured centre-left. Depending on what parties come out of the PD left, Grillo and the M5S could take a large portion of very unhappy PD voters. The more the M5S people, the grillini come into the media spotlight, though, the more they advertise their lack of ability and coherence – charming naiveté at first but not a good reason to vote for them. So there is a sort of race between the grillino learning curve and the ability of the PD to reorganise itself. Where these two curves are when the next elections take place will determine the result.

The other winner is of course Berlusconi.

James Walston is Chair of the Department International Relations and Global Politics at the American University of Rome