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Draghi in the mix as Italy elects new president

24 January 2022   |   12:42 pm
Italy's parliament begins voting Monday for a new president, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi the favourite but far from guaranteed in a race that risks destabilising the government.

(FILES) In this file photo taken on October 29, 2021 Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi stands at attention as he welcomes the Indian Prime Minister upon his arrival for their meeting at the Chigi palace in Rome. – Italy’s parliament starts voting on January 24, 2022 for a new president, a process that could take several days and, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi tipped for the job, risks destabilising the government. (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

Italy’s parliament begins voting Monday for a new president, with Prime Minister Mario Draghi the favourite but far from guaranteed in a race that risks destabilising the government.

Billionaire former premier Silvio Berlusconi withdrew from the contest on Saturday, but despite continued wrangling over the weekend, no clear candidate has yet emerged.

Berlusconi and Matteo Salvini of the anti-immigration League party oppose Draghi’s candidacy, arguing he should stay where he is as Italy emerges from the coronavirus crisis.

“It would be dangerous for Italy in a difficult economic time… to reinvent a new government from scratch,” Salvini told reporters on Sunday.

But Enrico Letta, leader of the centre-left Democratic Party, said Draghi had been an “extraordinary resource” for Italy and insisted his name was still on the table for the presidency.

The head of state is a largely ceremonial post but the holder wields considerable power during political crises, from dissolving parliament to picking new prime ministers and denying mandates to fragile coalitions.

The election, a secret ballot conducted over several days by more than 1,000 MPs, senators and regional representatives, is notoriously hard to predict.

EU reforms

Draghi, a former European Central Bank chief brought in to lead a national unity government one year ago, is widely considered the most eligible candidate.

But many fear his departure as premier could trigger chaos as Italy recovers from the devastation of the coronavirus pandemic — or even a snap election, which none of the ruling parties want.

With the disparate parties in Draghi’s coalition already in battle mode ahead of next year’s general elections, further instability could put European recovery funds at risk.

“This is a key and very complicated election, because the political parties are weak, they are in an utterly fragmented state,” Giovanni Orsina, head of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, told AFP.

Italy has a notoriously unstable electoral system and has seen dozens of governments come and go since World War II — with outgoing president Sergio Mattarella seeing five during his seven-year term.

But Draghi has led a remarkably united government comprising almost all of Italy’s political parties since being appointed by Mattarella in February 2021.

The eurozone’s third largest economy has returned to growth following a punishing recession in 2020 sparked by the pandemic.

And Draghi has initiated key reforms demanded in exchange for funds from the EU’s post-pandemic recovery scheme, of which Rome is the main beneficiary, to the tune of almost 200 billion euros ($225 billion).

Many international investors are concerned that debt-laden Italy would slip behind on the tight reform schedule should Draghi leave.

Others say he would be better placed as president to ensure political stability and good relations with Brussels particularly should the far right win the next election.

The 74-year-old himself, credited with saving the euro from a debt crisis while ECB chief, hinted last month at his interest in the presidency but has since kept silent.

Car park vote

The first round of voting begins at 3:00 pm (1400 GMT) on Monday in the lower Chamber of Deputies, with its result expected in the evening.

There are normally 1,009 electors, reduced to 1,008 Sunday after one MP died after a long illness.

Commentators predict no breakthrough until Thursday, the fourth round, when the threshold for victory falls from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority.

Because of Italy’s high Covid caseload, electors who tested positive or are isolating will be able to use a drive-through voting station set up in the parliament’s car park.

More than a dozen alternatives to Draghi have been mooted in the press and by the various parties, many of them former ministers. The latest name to crop up was that of secret service chief Elisabetta Belloni, considered a long shot.

Berlusconi, who at 85 is plagued by health problems and remains embroiled in legal proceedings over his “Bunga Bunga” sex parties, was back in hospital on Sunday for what his doctor said were planned, routine checks.

A spokesman confirmed to AFP Monday he spent the night at Milan’s San Raffaele hospital.