Italy’s Napolitano Reelected, Left Divided, Leaderless

Italy’s left seems on the verge of collapse after it fails to elect a president of its own.

Italian president Giorgio Napolitano in Rome, April 12
Italian president Giorgio Napolitano in Rome, April 12 (Presidenza della Repubblica)

The reelection of Italy’s octogenarian president Giorgio Napolitano on Saturday concludes days of partisan bickering but does not bring the Southern European country closer to forming a government. The left, which won a majority of the seats in the lower chamber of parliament in the last election but not the Senate, is on the verge of collapse.

Napolitano was reelected after the two candidates that had been nominated by left-wing leader Pier Luigi Bersani to succeed him failed to win the necessary support of parliamentarians and regional delegates who had gathered in Rome to elect a head of state.

A week earlier, Napolitano had rejected the possibility of his reelection as “bordering on the ridiculous” in an interview with La Stampa newspaper. “What is needed now is the courage to make choices, to look forward. It would be wrong to turn back,” he said.

No Italian president had ever been reelected. But after two days and five rounds of voting, a divided parliament was out of options.

The left’s former Senate speaker Franco Marini, whom Bersani put forward on Thursday, won support from conservative lawmakers but fell short of the required two-thirds majority when some of Bersani’s own members joined the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in backing Stefano Rodotà instead, a former lawmaker and privacy advocate.

Bersani’s second choice, former European Commission president Romano Prodi, also failed to win the unanimous backing of left-wing delegates and was opposed by conservatives whose leader, Silvio Berlusconi, was twice defeated by Prodi in national elections.

Prodi withdrew his nomination on Friday, prompting Bersani to resign. He might have cleared the way for Florence mayor Matteo Renzi to lead the Partito Democratico into reelections. Renzi won 40 percent of the votes in the party’s leadership election last year and is more popular nationwide. He could appeal to disappointed right-wing voters and prevent Berlusconi from returning to power.

The former premier and media tycoon, who is appealing a one year in prison sentence for abuse of office, looks certain to benefit from the disarray on the left if new elections are called.

Bersani’s mistake, according to La Stampa‘s Mario Calabrian, was to challenge his own far left, including Five Star Movement sympathizers, by nominating Marini and trying to lure the right into propping up a minority government — despite ruling out a formal coalition with Berlusconi.

It was a battle the former industry minister could not win, writes Calabrian, “because it takes place inside his home.” Therefore, he decided to return to the “old and reassuring battle with Berlusconi” in nominating Prodi, “thinking that at least would be on held on familiar territory” and restore lawmakers’ confidence in him.

The tactic didn’t pay off. Prodi fell more than one hundred votes short of a majority, suggesting that dozens of leftwingers joined the Five Star Movement in backing Rodotà again.

The mere possibility of an accord with Berlusconi’s supporters outraged Bersani’s socialist and Green party ally Sinistra Ecologia Libertà whose leader, Puglia regional president Nicola Vendola, warned on Thursday that such a coalition would herald “the end of the alliance. And suicide for the center.”

Vendola’s members voted against Napolitano on Sunday and he announced his intention to “start a new path” and “rebuild the fabric of the left.” Whether that meant a split from the social democrats wasn’t clear though.

If the Partito Democratico nominates Renzi, a social liberal who backed Prodi’s candidacy, for the prime ministership in new elections, it might alienate Vendola further as he opposes the Florentine’s push for market reforms and calls to be more “in tune” with the majority of Italians who are in the political center.