Giorgio Napolitano’s surprise second-term presidential win still leaves the country politically gridlocked

Despite the surprise and very rapid election of Giorgio Napolitano, Italy’s 87-year-old outgoing President for a second seven-year term, Italy remains politically gridlocked. His election may have won querulous lawmakers a short breather, but for the moment at least, no permanent end to the crisis is in sight.

Elections held in February threw up a hung Parliament. Silvio Berlusconi’s right wing allies have an edge in the Senate, while the Lower House is woefully split between the right, left, centre, the extreme right and extreme left. Mario Monti, the severe, uncharismatic banker who was brought in to head a technical government after Mr. Berlusconi was shooed out of office, has remained caretaker Prime Minister and the country’s parties are now engaged in further horse-trading to find a possible coalition.

Mr. Napolitano’s re-election came as a complete surprise. The 1,007-member electoral college had gone through five rounds of voting without settling on the name of a new President. Mr. Napolitano had his hands tied and the country was caught in what can only be described as a catch-22 situation.

For country’s sake

Mr. Napolitano, in an address to Parliament on Monday, scolded Italian politicians for being “irresponsible.” He said he had not wanted to run for a second term given his advanced age but felt obliged to do so for the sake of the country. “I could not decline, I was worried about the fate of the country,” he said. In a very critical speech he said politicians had squandered the progress that had been achieved under the technocratic government of Mario Monti. He was also particularly critical of the failure to make changes to the country’s electoral laws.

Since a credible coalition has failed to emerge, the only solution would have been to go back to the polls. The catch however was that Mr. Napolitano, whose current mandate runs out on May 15, could not have dissolved Parliament. Under the Italian Constitution, a President must have at least six months of his seven-year mandate left to be able to do that. Finally, after a ballet of leaders from various warring parties called on Mr. Napolitano pleading with him to stand again, a quick vote was ushered through Parliament. He won handsomely. A left-winger and former Interior Minister, he is the only universally respected politician in the entire country.

But Mr. Napolitano’s re-election has, for the time being, settled nothing. The anti-establishment Five Star Movement led by former comic Beppe Grillo described the development as a “coup d’etat” by the country’s political establishment. “They have stolen a year,” he told supporters at a rally in Rome.

Mr. Grillo’s Five Star movement backed a left-wing academic Stefano Rodota who fared poorly in the face of overwhelming support for Mr. Napolitano. That said, under pressure from the re-elected President the parties will begin consultations again this week in a bid to find a way out of the impasse. Even if a government does emerge, it is unlikely to last long and Italy, Europe’s third-largest economy, appears to be teetering on the edge of a precipice.

Implications of fragmentation

The decision by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the Democratic Party, to step down has added to the political gloom. This party won a slim majority in the lower house in February, but not enough to form a government.

Mr. Bersani decided to quit on Friday after a section of his own party voted against candidates he had proposed for the presidency. He bitterly accused some members of betrayal saying there was a “tendency in some towards permanent destruction.”

The fragmentation of the centre-left is a further reminder of how itty-bitty Italy’s political reality is, with parties ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right. The centre-left itself is composed of a vast panorama of parties from the extreme left to centrist and there is so much infighting that any government would have been unworkable. Mr. Bersani’s most probable replacement, Matteo Renzi, would appeal to right-wing voters but he will not be acceptable to hard-core leftist. A total implosion of the centre-left alliance is therefore inevitable.

What then happens to Beppe Grillo’s 20 per cent of the vote? In an interview with the BBC, Mr. Grillo predicted that a government put together today would hold out “a year at most.” His movement now has the most number of seats in Parliament and he could play a clever game to become kingmaker in the weeks to come. The fact that so many Italians voted for a person so alien to the habitual political landscape speaks volumes for the contempt in which most Italians hold their political leadership. The strong showing of the Five Star Movement could be likened to a veritable insurgency that has sent shock waves across the country.

As for Mr. Napolitano, he has been elected for a full seven-year term. Most commentators believe however, that once the current crisis has been resolved, he will resign, probably within a year. Italy’s problems will persist.

More In: Comment | Opinion