Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Italy’s body or soul? The choice for president.

Tomorrow, voting will start for President Napolitano’s successor, a crucial figure given the political stalemate. For most of the 65 year old Italian republic, the president has been a largely symbolic figure, cutting ribbons, attending funerals and welcoming victorious athletes. But his powers are like a concertina; they expand and contract depending on how well the political and judicial powers are working.

Over the last two years, they have expanded enormously. Most recently, a fortnight ago, Napolitano commissioned “ten wise men” to draw up proposals for a future government. Quite apart from the substance of their proposals, this was a major innovation – the President attempted to set the agenda for a government and condition it as Andrea Vannucci clearly pointed out in his recent contribution to the blog.

Napolitano has also intervened heavily in the judiciary, asking for and getting the guarantee from the Constitutional Court that any presidential conversation may not be recorded, far less cited, even if a person under investigation calls him. That was last year; two weeks ago he successfully pressured the Milan courts to change their schedules so that Silvio Berlusconi’s trial hearings would be postponed until after the presidential election.
All of these are much more than the constitution’s general mandate for the President to be the final guarantor of the constitution. On top of this, the new president will have to either encourage the parties to come to a deal and form a government or call early elections, a very real and immediate power.

The president is elected by an electoral college made up of both houses of parliament plus representatives of the regions for a total of 1,007. In the first three ballots a two thirds majority is necessary (672) from the fourth, a simple majority (508).

There are some who argue that the President should have three qualities apart from being an Italian over 50 (a constitutional requirement) not barred from holding public office. He or she should have a good grasp and working knowledge of the Constitution, be respected abroad and hold any prejudices towards any part of Italy (and vice versa). The last requirement is a not very veiled way of saying that the new president should not consider Berlusconi as the devil (or be considered as an enemy by Berlusconi).

The alternative is to think that the President should indeed be reasonably authorative on the constitution and respected abroad but that s/he should actually lead – ethically and politically. He or she should not be a distillate of Italian virtues and vices, an Everyman or woman, someone who fudges issues in order to maintain a semblance of unity but someone who has the personal moral stature to defend the ethical values of the constitution first of all by the example of what he or she has done in their previous life and then by reminding today’s actors of what the Republic of Italy stands for… at least according to its constitution and its politicians’ rhetoric.

This is not a pious hope – most presidents were elected as a muddled compromise of incompetence but there have been “moral” presidents, men who were elected as real figures and then acted on principle even if they came from the Establishment, especially at moments of crisis: Einaudi at the beginning, Pertini in the midst of terrorism, Scalfaro and Ciampi in very different way more recently.
Instead, after negotiating on points of principle for two months, Pierluigi Bersani and the Democratic Party has put forward a collection traditional compromise candidates. Not what Italy needs to get it out of the swamp it is in.

With just over 12 hours to go before the electors meet to vote, Bersani’s PD plumped for Franco Marini… former president of the senate and once head of the mainly Christian Democrat union, the CISL. Worthy and unsullied by scandal but never having taken his distance from it. Their second strings are Massimo D’Alema, who tried to cut deals and compromise with Berlusconi and always lost (so is acceptable to Berlusconi), Giuliano Amato, defined by most at a “man for all seasons” who piloted Italy through political and economic storms 20 years ago, an expert constitutionalist and respected academically and politically abroad but also a man of compromise. There are many in the PD who have already said that none of these alternatives is acceptable so as well as proposing dodgy candidates, Bersani is splitting the party as well. They know as does Bersani, that an alliance with Berlusconi will mean death at the next elections whenever they are.

Berlusconi himself has so far not committed himself or his followers but he has endorsed Marini so if all the PdL and PD voted together, Marini might just make in the first round.

This might not happen as Grillo has played a very canny game. He proclaims transparency and total rejection of the political establishment and instead made a complete mess of the primary vote for the M5S’s presidential candidate (first round annulled, no figures for the second round) and put forward some hardly radical candidates. There was Romano Prodi, twice prime minister and former president of the EU, Gustavo Zagrebelsky, former Constitutional Court judge and Stefano Rodotà, academic lawyer, former deputy in the PCI (without being a member) and its successors and former president of the Privacy Oversight Agency. (there were others but even if not members of old political parties, they were also part of the establishment). The three are very worthy but not outsiders. Rodotà has now accepted to become the M5S candidate and is very well-regarded in much of the PD so tomorrow they will have to choose.

Tomorrow (and mostly likely the day after and maybe Monday) will be a battle for the soul of Italy. It’s result will condition which way the body moves.

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