Blast from the past? Why Berlusconi’s comeback plans got Europeans worked up
Italian presidents are the heads of state, and their role may sometimes seem ceremonial. In times of crisis and political volatility, however, their influence grows. President Mattarella held the country together and on track with its European commitments. Italy, an EU founding member, and its third-largest economy prepares to receive 200 billion euros of the European Rescue Fund.
Money it urgently needs after being hit hard by the pandemic. This election matters outside of Italy. Case in point: Silvio Berlusconi’s, the EU “boogie man,” plan to succeed Mattarella stired up emotions with their fellow-Europeans. For some perspective, I asked Daniele Albertazzi, professor of politics at the University of Surrey and expert on right-wing populism in Italy: Did Silvio Berlusconi really stand a chance to become the next president of Italy? And who else might make the race?
With Berlusconi, nothing is impossible, but I only gave it a small chance. So, my answer would be: no, Berlusconi did not have a realistic chance to become the next president of Italy. The reason for this is that a President Berlusconi was not even in the interest of the leaders of the right-wing coalition, his own political camp.
Therefore, he could not be assured that even they would have voted for him (the vote being secret). People like Matteo Salvini of the Lega, and Georgia Meloni of Brothers of Italy (both populist radical right parties), are keeping their eyes firmly on the next parliamentary elections coming up in the spring of 2023 at the latest. Chances are these elections will produce a right-wing majority, with one of them becoming prime minister.
When that happens, the European Commission, international investors, and the international financial markets will worry that a radical figure has been able to get the premiership. With Berlusconi President, there would have been a risk of repeating 2011, when all these actors basically turned against Italy. Neither Salvini nor Meloni needed that.
For context: Political power in Italy lies with the leaders of the political parties supporting the prime minister. The parliament is elected every five years in a general election, and the leading majority within parliament carries the government. Italian presidents, however, are the heads of state and represent the unity of the nation. In times of crisis and/or political instability, their influence grows.
One of their concerns becomes making sure Italy’s relationship with other partners within the EU and the EU Commission remains solid. This is what happened under the Mattarella presidency. It is also important to note that the president of the Republic is not elected in a general election but by Parliament in joint sessions (Chamber of Deputies, Senate, and some representatives from regional administrations).
Now, that Berlusconi has dropped out of the race, what is more likely to happen? The winning candidate may well be a pro-EU centrist, possibly one who is little known outside of Italy but is well anchored in Rome. As an example, Elisabetta Casellati comes to mind. She is center-right (from the largest group in Parliament), the president of the Senate, and a woman (the role has always been held by men so far).
Hence she would tick a lot of boxes. In this scenario, Mario Draghi would stay on as prime minister, overseeing the allocation of tranches of the European Rescue fund until the next general elections in spring 2023.
Then, of course, there is Mario Draghi himself. If he emerges as the next president of Italy, he has his place in Italian politics for the next seven years, but he also will leave a vacancy that needs to be filled in no time, considering the tight reform schedule Italy has committed to to get the promised EU funds.
I think that Draghi staying put as prime minister and a centrist becoming President is a slightly more likely scenario than Draghi becoming President himself. Moving him to the Presidency may lead to early elections, and this is an outcome very many in Parliament are keen to avoid. But the election process may be protracted, and the negotiations that lead to choosing the President are not conducted in the open. All we can do for now is wait and see.
Daniele Albertazzi is a Professor of Politics in the Politics Department of the University of Surrey. Daniele has been the principal investigator of several research projects focusing on right-wing populism, Italian politics, political communication, and party organization. For more information on the Populism in Action Project, please follow this link: Populism In Action Project