Italy’s Presidential Election: What Comes Next?

On 29 January 2022, after eight rounds of voting, Italy re-elected Sergio Mattarella as President of the Republic. To many, this result came as a surprise, because Mattarella himself had clearly expressed his intention to step down based on moral grounds: while not expressly forbidden by the Constitution, the re-election of an incumbent head of state should be avoided–as then President Antonio Segni put it in a speech delivered in 1963 and recently cited by Mattarella–because the sheer possibility of it may create incentives for the incumbent to engage in acts meant to favor his or her re-election, de facto calling into question the impartiality of the President.

Secretive Elections

Why did Italy’s 1009 ‘grand electors’ – lawmakers from both houses of parliament and regional delegates – fail to converge on another candidate, and what are the future domestic and political implications of this? The way in which Italy elects its head of state is somewhat secretive, basically consisting in rounds of voting which are reiterated until an eligible candidate – anyone over the age of 50 with “full civil rights”  – obtains a majority. This usually happens following negotiations within and between political parties. Although in a different context this may raise concerns for its lack of transparency, this procedure seems to be widely accepted by the Italian population. In fact, the election by secret ballot is meant to guarantee that grand electors are completely free to pick the candidate they truly deem suitable for the job, rather than feeling obliged to vote for the candidate their party leaders would like them to support.

This time, the list of potential nominees has included several controversial figures, including former prime minister and tycoon Silvio Berlusconi and current Senate Speaker and Berlusconi’s party ally Elisabetta Casellati. The former announced his intention to “pull out” of the race before the first round of voting, while the second failed to be elected on January 28 when many members of her own party apparently decided not to cast a vote in her favor.

Unprecedented Move

Importantly, currently Prime Minister Mario Draghi has also been named as a potential candidate. His election, however, in addition to being unprecedented (never before in the country’s history was a Prime Minister considered for an “upgrade” to the Presidency of the Republic), would have entailed the appointment of a new prime minister and almost inevitably triggered a cabinet reshuffling at an extremely delicate time for Italy.

The country, whose government debt to GDP ratio dangerously approached 160 percent in 2021, and which needs to meet 100 key targets and milestones in order to receive 45.9 billion Euros from Bruxelles as part of  Italy’s recovery and resilience plan, can hardly afford to go through a phase of political instability right now. Although currently the situation in Ukraine has dominated the political agenda in Italy and beyond, Italy’s right-wing parties, including those which are part of the government coalition like Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and Salvini’s Lega are already expressing their discontent vis-a-vis Draghi’s policy agenda.

On 3 March the center-right members of the parliamentary finance committee compactly voted against a land registry reform which would increase taxation for property owners. The amendment they presented was rejected by one vote, but the governing coalition seems to be more fragile than ever. While Mario Draghi is considered by his European counterparts to be a reliable interlocutor, many fear that the cabinet emerging from a new general election might be one led by a far-right leader, such as Giorgia Meloni, whose Fratelli d’Italia (“Brothers of Italy”) party is doing very well in opinion polls. Meloni, as well as Salvini, may oppose some of the reforms which are indispensable for Italy to receive the funds the country has been allocated as part of  the European Recovery Plan.


With their choice to re-elect Mattarella against his own wishes, Italy’s MPs and regional delegates evidently signaled their unwillingness to both “promote” Draghi to the position of head of state and trigger a cabinet reshuffling. Apart from these considerations, however, their failure to converge on another name was the almost inevitable result of the extreme fragmentation of the country’s party system. Paradoxically, it is precisely when political parties are weak that Italy’s President becomes crucial in guaranteeing a modicum of political stability, upholding the Constitution and appointing a new prime minister when the circumstances require it.

Before 2013, when incumbent Giorgio Napolitano (aged 88 at the time) was confirmed as President of the Republic, no head of state had ever been re-elected for a second mandate. The re-election of 80-years-old Mattarella – who succeeded Napolitano in 2015 – can therefore be seen as further proof of the seemingly endless crisis of Italy’s political system. Weak party leaders, the tendency to bicker even between potential coalition partners (especially center-right ones), ever-plunging levels of trust in politicians by citizens are but some of the symptoms of the country’s democratic malaise. 


The coming months will pose many challenges for Mario Draghi – whose leadership was indirectly called into question by the outcome of Italy’s presidential election – and will surely test his ability to keep together the vast governing coalition he presides over. Against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, with government policies essentially based on a vaccine-only approach to pandemic management and daily deaths still topping 400 in February 2022–not to mention the geopolitical uncertainties connected to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine–Italy’s political parties will start to campaign for the upcoming general election. While under the present circumstances the country would need a strong government, enjoying the full support of the public opinion, the chances of it getting one as a result of the 2023 general election are indeed slim. The extremely high electoral volatility which has affected the country over the past decade will most likely result in a fragmented parliament. In this context, the role of Sergio Mattarella will be more crucial than ever.


Edited by: Eden Bailey
Categories: Europe, Insights, Politics

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