Crises are supposed to be moments of transition, with a beginning and an end. But in Italian politics, a crisis that began some thirty years ago continues apace. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “Bribesville” corruption scandal that brought down the old party system in the early 1990s, Italy entered a state of constant turmoil amid Silvio Berlusconi’s antics, financial crisis, and populist insurgencies interspersed with technocratic governments. Some on the Left, like 1998–2000 prime minister Massimo D’Alema, hoped that Italy would become “a normal country” like the European partners he and his colleagues so admired. Instead, its chaos intensified — while providing a foretaste of later developments across much of the West.
The political theater surrounding the election of the next president of the Republic, which begins on Monday, encapsulates this sorry state of affairs. The vote among MPs, senators, and regional electors to choose the new head of state has always been delicate business, but only in recent times has it become seen, and represented in Italian media, as a national emergency. At stake, we hear, is the future “stability” of the Italian Republic — meaning, its credibility vis-à-vis the European Union and investors. The result remains highly unpredictable, and amid all sorts of tactical moves, the ground is also being prepared for a general election to be held by 2023, in which the Right hopes to win an absolute majority.
According to custom — and given the deference attached to the institution — normally, no one explicitly puts their own name forward. Clever hopefuls tend to be those who act in a more reserved manner, awaiting the call of destiny. Yet, reflecting the anomalous character of this election, this time around two personalities have made clear their intentions to become president: Silvio Berlusconi and current prime minister Mario Draghi.
Berlusconi, famous for his corruption, Mafia links, and other antics, launched what he described as “Operation Squirrel” — scrabbling around for the support not just of center-right allies but also of centrists and other politicians for hire. Yet on Saturday, he withdrew, after realizing he lacked the necessary votes. Draghi’s candidacy — more discreetly promoted by the man himself — has a broader consensus behind it but also faces serious obstacles.
Since becoming prime minister in February 2021, after the toppling of Giuseppe Conte’s center-left administration, Draghi has ruled under the pretense of being an expert, heading a “government of the best” that stands above political divides. In this guise, he has ushered in policies favoring businesses, including tax cuts to the rich and subsidies to companies and homeowners. Despite its rather lackluster performance, his government enjoys the support of the majority of voters and around two-thirds of MPs. Yet his election as president of the Republic would trigger a complex process to form a new government — and perhaps even snap elections that many parliamentarians want to avoid.
Another “unity candidate” following the same program may eventually be chosen, perhaps an elderly figure not likely to complete their term. But whatever happens in the halls of Parliament, this election epitomizes the sorry state of Italian democracy, as it continues its never-ending “transition to normality.” In this eternal crisis, presidential “institutionalism” perennially butts heads with an inchoate “populism” — with neither able to find a route out of the impasse.
The Highest Hill
Elected every seven years, the Italian president is shrouded in great respect. His official residence (all previous presidents have been men) is the Quirinal Palace, the traditional home of the pope and then the king of Savoy, atop the highest of Rome’s seven hills. This pomp extends to the manner of his election: the process, with slightly over a thousand parliamentarians voting in a succession of secret ballots, is widely compared to the conclave in which cardinals elect the Pope, also because of the secrecy in which it is enveloped. The presidency commands similar respect: this is usually the most popular institution among Italians, and offense to presidential honor and prestige is punished by criminal sanctions.
Part of this aura derives from the notion that the president is something akin to a neutral referee, intervening in politics only to preserve the Constitution. Yet they are far from merely a ceremonial figure able to rely on “moral suasion” alone. The Italian president can dissolve Parliament, call elections, and nominate five senators-for-life. They can remand laws to Parliament asking for amendments. They are president of the council of magistrates, can declare war, and heads the armed forces. Most important, the president names the prime minister and individual ministers (albeit in consultation with the parties in Parliament).
This latter power was exercised by incumbent president Sergio Mattarella after the last general election in March 2018, during the formation of Giuseppe Conte’s first government bringing together the hard-right Lega and the eclectic Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle, M5S). After weeks of negotiations, these parties planned to hand the powerful economy ministry to controversial university professor Paolo Savona, who had made sharp criticisms of the way Eurozone membership had damaged Italian economic interests. But Mattarella refused.
In a rare address to the nation, Mattarella explained his decision not to anoint Savona. He asserted with great concern that “the uncertainty about our position in the euro has alarmed investors and savers, both Italian and foreign, who have invested in our government bonds and in our companies,” while cautioning that these doubts would in turn push up public debt. Eventually, Five Star and Lega bowed to the pressure and nominated the technocratic Giovanni Tria. He took up the role of an internal guard against these parties’ “irresponsibility,” resisting attempts to spend above the conservative deficit target set by the European Commission.
De Facto Presidentialism
The Savona case nicely illustrates what analysts call Italy’s “de facto presidentialism,” seemingly contradicting the formal primacy of the parliamentary system. While Italian presidents have never been merely ceremonial, the office’s power has expanded considerably in recent decades, amid political instability in Parliament and government. The forerunner in this turn was 1985–1992 president Francesco Cossiga, widely criticized for his sharply polemical comments (“picconate”). He was also the only president thus far subjected to (ultimately unsuccessful) impeachment procedures after revelations as to his role in Operation Gladio, which prepared “stay behind” paramilitary groups for the possibility of Soviet invasion or revolution during the Cold War.
The presidency’s power grew further under Giorgio Napolitano (2006–15), who became known as King Giorgio. This moniker did not only owe to his physical similarity to the last king of Italy, Umberto II of Savoy, noted by conspiracy theorists. More decisive was his exceptional intervention amid the 2011 financial crisis. After the August 5, 2011, letter to the Italian government from the heads of the European Central Bank (ECB), including Draghi, demanding sweeping budget cuts and privatizations, PM Berlusconi had to resign. Many accused Napolitano of having masterminded his fall.
Napolitano nominated in his place Mario Monti, a former EU commissioner and economist at Bocconi University (the Italian equivalent of the Chicago School). He had shortly beforehand made Monti a senator-for-life, a move seen as paving the way for his rise to high office. After appointing Monti as premier, Napolitano delivered a stirring speech insisting “this is the moment of his test” and declaring that support for Monti was a duty for all political forces, in the interest of national unity.
His interventionism only continued in the ensuing years. Concerned by the rise of the Five Star Movement, which in the 2013 general election entered Parliament for the first time with 25 percent of the vote, he strongly criticized the “anti-politics” attributed to the supporters of M5S founder Beppe Grillo, calling it a “subversive pathology.” With a divided parliament unable to choose a successor, Napolitano became the first president elected for a second term, though he resigned in 2015 once the formation of a government under neoliberal centrist Matteo Renzi had guaranteed the stability he hoped for.
Napolitano’s comments against anti-politics show how the institution of the presidency has been remolded by repeated bouts of “populism,” starting already with Berlusconi’s antics in government and continuing with the insurgencies of Five Star, Salvini’s Lega, and now Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia. This populism has been repeatedly countered by “institutionalism,” a politics that emphasizes above all else the “stability” of the state and its institutions, guaranteeing the maintenance of the economic status quo. As explicitly spelled out in Mattarella’s speech on the nomination of Savona, this also means using the president’s power to guard against any change that may concern the market.
A Technocratic Normality
Institutionalism has many supporters. It is most obviously espoused by the center-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico, PD). With strong support from pensioners, public employees, and relatively well-off workers (more precarious workers tend to vote for Five Star), who have much to lose from any instability, the Democrats often cast themselves as the “party of the nation” or a “pillar” guaranteeing the solidity of the state.
The PD has developed a strong identification with the presidency. Recent presidents were all somehow close to the moderate wing of the center-left, no matter whether their roots were in Christian Democracy (as in Mattarella’s case), the Communist Party (Napolitano), or central banking (Carlo Azeglio Ciampi). But this institutionalism is now also espoused by Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, which, given the current right-wing radicalization of Italian politics, is now widely considered “centrist.” Further, institutionalism is supported by many voters, especially those with property and decent salaries, who fear turmoil and ruptures with the EU.
The avowed enemy of this institutionalism is populism, represented in the news media as a spectral tendency embodied in different moments by various leaders and parties seen as threatening the stability of the Republic. Yet time and again, the strictures of institutionalism, and the accompanying perception that political decisions are limited by the authority of the president and the meddling of allies and the EU as well as adherence to neoliberal dogmas, have only fed waves of populist insurgencies. The institution of the presidency was designed to prevent the rise of strongmen, after the tragedy of fascism. But the ever-more interventionist control exercised by the president over political decisions only feeds the desire for charismatic-plebiscitary leaders and a populist overcoming of institutionalist constraints on the popular will.
Draghi perfectly embodies this institutionalism. He is, as he is often described, a perfect “statesman” — but in one particular sense. Since the 1980s, he has served time and again as a state bureaucrat in different ministries, at the World Bank and as head of Italy’s central bank, before becoming chair of the European Central Bank. But he has never had a party card and has rarely taken explicit political stances.
This hardly means that his choices “stand above politics.” His tenure in government has been marked by the attempt to consolidate a new economic consensus, bridging neoliberal pro-business stances, with post-pandemic state interventionism and the greater room for financial spending allowed by the fading away of the austerity consensus of the 2010s — all in the service of Italian companies and the upper middle class, but with an eye to not letting social strife explode. Electing him president — a figure supposed to uphold the Constitution and embody national unity — would affirm Draghi’s technocratic political agenda as a unity program for Italians for many years to come. We can easily imagine that his presidency, even more explicitly than Mattarella’s or Napolitano’s, would ensure that no governments of whatever coloration would diverge much from this course.
A Draghi presidency would in one sense be unprecedented: he would be the first president to be elected while he is the sitting prime minister. This would demand a hasty formation of a new government before he took up his new office at the end of Mattarella’s term next month. Draghi’s election would in some ways echo that of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, another former central banker who was made prime minister in 1993 at an earlier moment of crisis. He was appointed to that job by then president Oscar Luigi Scalfaro at a moment when Italy was rocked by financial crisis, with the devaluation of the lira, corruption scandals, and a terrorism campaign by the Mafia. In this context, Ciampi ushered in a tightening of wages to secure Italy’s return to the European Monetary System (EMS). Six years later, in 1999, he was himself elected president of the Republic, presiding over Italy’s entry into the EU’s single currency and exerting pressure on Berlusconi’s governments amid repeated scandals and rifts with European allies.
That a new technocrat is being considered for the presidency some twenty-three years after Ciampi shows that Italy’s obsession with technocracy (no other Western country has had so many technocratic governments in recent decades) has failed to cure the never-ending political crisis. Rather, it has fueled a suspension of democratic normality, conducive to the rise of all sorts of populist phenomena.
There is, as ever, a feedback loop between this institutionalism and anti-political sentiment. Telling is the example of the Five Star Movement, the great “populist” force of the 2010s, which rose to prominence with a moralistic and all-encompassing denunciation of politicians and parties and the interventionism of President Napolitano. One of its effects was a constitutional reform reducing the number of legislators by one-third, which, added to the collapse in M5S’s support after its chameleonic participation in three different governments in three years, points to a clearing-out of its MPs in the case of snap elections. Today, such fears of an early encounter with the electorate counsel against making Draghi president — unless an agreement is found on who should succeed him. So much for “populism.”
Given the complexity of electing Draghi president of the Republic while he is the sitting prime minister, parties may eventually opt for another “institutionalist” figure. The possible candidates touted for this alternative scenario are mainly octogenarians likely to resign or die before the end of their mandate, thus allowing Draghi to soon take up the role reserved for him by institutionalist providence; or slightly younger figures who would continue the course of institutionalism, while allowing Draghi to complete his work as prime minister.
Whoever is chosen as president, the most remarkable story is the picture of decline that this process has demonstrated. Italy is a republic in which the government is led by a technocrat with parties accepting their futility; in which, while the Right has radicalized its position, the center-left continues to see its mission as securing the stability of the system, regardless of its implications for voters; and in which Parliament is under the blackmail of “transformists,” politicians-for-hire crossing from one group to another and ready to join in all sorts of intrigues. The country is thus bound to remain locked in eternal transition — the nihilist fight between institutionalism and populism, each feeding the other, while Italy’s real problems go unaddressed.