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ROME — In the weeks leading up to Italy’s presidential election, President Sergio Mattarella made it abundantly clear that he was retiring.
He made sure to be spotted house-hunting. An aide posted pictures on social media of his moving boxes all packed. He insisted repeatedly that his time was up.
But after almost a week of political gridlock, and infighting that exposed deep divisions in the governing coalition, Mattarella has been coerced into staying on, in the interest of stability. His decision averts the imminent threat of early elections. After votes for Mattarella reached the majority of 505, MPs in the Chamber of Deputies stood up, applauding and exchanging high-fives. Internet memes in Italy on Saturday jokingly depicted Mattarella as a hostage.
Parliamentarians and regional delegates began voting on Monday to find a successor for Mattarella, whose seven-year term expires on February 3.
The president has the power to appoint prime ministers and cabinets and has wide-ranging powers in times of crisis. The left has had the advantage over the past three decades. But this time with neither right- or left-wing blocs able to command a majority, lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on a unity figure.
With Italy in the midst of a punishing fourth wave of COVID and facing the double challenge of safeguarding the economic recovery and implementing the EU’s post-pandemic investment fund, pressure was growing on political leaders to avoid an impasse the country could not afford.
As party leaders failed to make progress, rebel lawmakers increasingly backed Mattarella in the daily ballots, with his tally rising from 125 on Wednesday, to 387 in the first round on Saturday. In the end, Mattarella garnered 759 of the 1,009 possible votes.
After six failed rounds of voting, Prime Minister Mario Draghi intervened and asked Mattarella to stay on, according to a person familiar with the situation, and lobbied party leaders to converge on the plan.
Party representatives formally went to the presidential palace to appeal to Mattarella. “Given the situation, we begged him to stay for another term,” Senator Julia Unterberger said. Mattarella said he “had other plans for his future” but given the situation would make himself available, Unterberger said.
Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the center-right Forza Italia party, said that unity “today can only be found around the figure of President Sergio Mattarella, of whom we know we’re asking a great sacrifice.”
Supporters saw Italy’s position as strengthened. “It’s a net win for Italy,” said centrist MP Bruno Tabacci. “At the G20 last year, all the other countries recognized the authoritative leadership of Draghi and Mattarella. Now their leadership has been confirmed the government is in a position to meet the requirements of Europe, manage this delicate phase of COVID and relaunch the economy,” he said.
“You don’t change a winning team,” regional delegate Dino Latini said. “It could be seen as not very innovative, but with this decision the parliament, government and Italy’s image have all been saved.”
Mattarella’s election means Draghi will stay on as prime minister, avoiding early elections. Draghi himself had been considered a candidate, but failed to get wide backing from the parties because of the difficulty of finding a replacement prime minister who could command the same governing majority. A major obstacle was anxiety among parliamentarians about early elections, after which many expect to lose their seat due to cuts in the size of the parliament.
Giorgio Fede, a senator with the 5Star Movement, said that it would have been wrong to elect Draghi. “It was not the moment to have a political crisis,” he said.
“Draghi was given a job, to manage the pandemic and the recovery fund, both still apply today so it’s right to allow him to continue his work,” Fede said.
Not everyone saw the result as positive. The opposition Brothers of Italy voted against Mattarella. 5Star Senator Sergio Romagnoli said that while Mattarella is “very capable” the decision represented “a failure of politics.”
The 5Star Movement failed in their attempt to elect Italy’s first woman president, Romagnoli pointed out. “We would have preferred a woman. We had the opportunity to turn the page, create new energy. But we had to work together to find an agreement,” he said.
With the election over, Draghi must attempt to rebuild his unwieldy coalition, no easy task following the breakdown in trust. After failing to get support from all the parties, Draghi’s own standing took a hit, but his decision to be part of the solution is likely to help him regain authority.
It is likely that a realignment will be needed. On Saturday night, 5Star leader Giuseppe Conte and Matteo Salvini of the League requested talks with Draghi for clarification on the government program and to identify new priorities.
Maurizio Gasparri, senator in Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, said the coalition forces would need a little time to get back to normal, but was confident it would remain standing until the end of the legislature. “It is needed to deal with the emergencies,” he said.