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The Re-election of President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and the Challenges for the Italian Form of Government

Giorgio Grasso, Full Professor of Constitutional Law, University of Insubria (Italy)

On 29 January, Parliament in joint session, made up of regional delegates, re-elected Sergio Mattarella as President of the Italian Republic. Following on from President Giorgio Napolitano in 2013, for the second time in Italian constitutional history a President of the Republic has been re-appointed for a further term of office.

This post aims to analyse the re-election of Sergio Mattarella from twin perspectives: the first, relating to the reasons that led Parliament to choose Mattarella for a second term; the second concerns how this nomination might affect the role of President of the Republic and the way the Italian form of government functions both at the end of its current legislature and during forthcoming legislatures. 

In accordance with Articles 83 and 85 of the Constitution, the President is elected for seven years by Parliament in joint session, with three delegates per region and a single delegate from Valle d’Aosta participating in the election. The election is carried out by means of a secret ballot with a majority of two thirds of the assembly. After the third ballot an absolute majority suffices. On the basis of a constitutional convention, the constituency electing the President is one in which only senators, deputies and regional delegates are able to vote, without debate or the submission of formal nominations to the Presidency by the parliamentary groups.  

The initial ballot took place on 24 January, with the usual parliamentary procedures undergoing changes in order to respect social distancing within the hall at Montecitorio – seat of the Chamber of Deputies – as well as reducing the participation of senators, deputies and regional delegates en masse during the vote. The two-thirds majority of the assembly prevents the presidential election in the first three ballots bar any prior agreement amongst the political parties represented in Parliament. This had only previously occurred in 1985, with the election of Francesco Cossiga, and in 1999 with the election of Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, both at the first ballot. With no agreement among the parties of the sizable governing coalition – overseen by the President of the Council Mario Draghi – the first three rounds of vote (one per day on 24, 25 and 26 January) failed to produce a candidate able to assume the role of President of the Republic. On various previous occasions (Luigi Einaudi in 1948, Giovanni Gronchi in 1955, Giorgio Napolitano in 2006 and Sergio Mattarella himself in 2015) the fourth ballot – the first in which the absolute majority is enough – had proved decisive in electing the President. This time, however, the fourth round held on 27 January would be unsuccessful with 441 abstentions, in particular from the centre-right and right wing parties (Forza Italia, Lega and Fratelli d’Italia). In the fifth round, on the morning of 28 January, Elisabetta Casellati, the President of the Senate of the Republic, supported by the same centre-right and right leaning parties, received 382 votes, well below the 505-vote majority necessary for the appointment, with 406 abstentions from centre-left parties (specifically Partito Democratico and Movimento 5 Stelle). From then on votes for Sergio Mattarella continued to accrue ballot after ballot: 336 votes in the sixth round on the afternoon of 28 January, 387 in the seventh round on the morning of 29 January, before some 759 final votes on the afternoon of 29 January prompted the formal re-election after six days of what had often been very tense voting. Only Sandro Pertini, elected President in July of 1978, at the sixteenth ballot, two months after the assassination of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade, during a period of tragic political upheaval, had obtained more votes (with a 832-vote tally on that occasion).

Mattarella, therefore, emerged as the only candidate able to procure the support of a substantial majority, the same majority that had supported the Mario Draghi-led government since February 2021; Draghi in turn might have stood as a presidential candidate, had political parties and their leaders not chosen him to head the government.

In the months prior to the presidential elections, Sergio Mattarella had several times publicly expressed a desire to leave office (here for example) citing strictly personal reasons, but also due to the constitutional belief that the President’s lengthy term of administration (seven years, with only the fifteen judges of the Constitutional Court remaining in office longer – for nine years – without reappointment) would discourage a further seven-year re-election. The Italian Constitution is silent on the issue. Previous Presidents such as Antonio Segni and Giovanni Leone had voiced their concerns about the possibility of the President’s re-election. However, the re-election of Napolitano in 2013 set a precedent for a President to be once again elected after seven years. One can likely assume that President Mattarella’s desire to leave office highlighted concerns about paving the way for a constitutional convention that might determine a President’s right to re-election.

The evening of his re-election, after the President of the Senate Casellati and the President of the Chamber of Deputies Fico had informed him of the result of the vote, Mattarella, in a brief statement, underlined that the sense of responsibility and respect for Parliament’s decisions “impose to not avoid to the duties to which one is called”. I think that this sentence sums up very well the figure of the first seven-year term of Mattarella and also that of the new mandate.

The re-election of Mattarella seems destined to influence the role of President of the Republic on the way that the parliamentary form of government functions.   

The second mandate of Napolitano was from the beginning a time-dictated mandate, not least of all because the re-elected President was 88 years old. In his speech, after the oath before the Parliament in joint session, Napolitano stated that his term would last “as long as the situation of the country and the institutions requires”.

The second Mattarella term will be a full mandate. Mattarella, who at 80 years old is still fully involved in politics, had been convinced to stay for the stability of Italy. In his speech of 3 February 2022 after being sworn in, Mattarella outlined how he intends to fulfil this new mandate, according to the wording and spirit of the Italian Constitution. It might be worth pointing out some of the key phrases from the speech: the battle against the virus by means of the vaccination campaign, “that protect ourselves and others”; the importance to re-establishing a “constitutional pact between Italians and their free and democratic institutions” and the will to “design and initiate building of a post-emergency Italy over the coming years”; the concern for the functioning of a solid democracy, because “authentic democracy requires dutiful compliance with the rules of decision making, discussion and participation”; the emphasis on the role of Parliament as a place “where politics recognizes, promotes ​​and introduces into the institutions the very heart that emerges from civil society”; the reference of the necessity of political parties, “called upon to respond to the opening questions that come from citizens and social forces”; the request for a profound process of reform of the judicial system, by safeguarding, at the same time, “the indispensable principles of autonomy and independence of the Judiciary”. Above all, in this inaugural speech Mattarella repeated the word ‘dignity’ no less than eighteen times, considering it “the cornerstone of our commitment, of our civil passion”.

The re-election of Mattarella seems to have strengthened the Mario Draghi-led government; a government supported by a multi-party coalition, divided not only among themselves but often within themselves, with great fragmentation (Cassese). This government has two fundamental goals to achieve: the widest possible vaccinal coverage in the fight against the virus and the implementation of the Recovery and Resilience Plan, with its broad, ambitious package of investments and reforms.

In this legislature, started in 2018, the role of Mattarella in the formation of Conte I, Conte II and Draghi governments proved decisive. During even the most dramatic events of the pandemic, Mattarella was consistently able to epitomise national unity, as well as the demands made on the President of the Republic by Article 87 of the Constitution. 

2023 will see general elections for a new Parliament, a Parliament downsized after the constitutional reform of 2020. It will be a tough task to predict the outcome of the election, due in part to the uncertainty surrounding electoral law, the current or a new one eventually approved by Parliament. Faced with a new Parliament and a new Government, with a (new?) President of the Council of Ministers, the “former” President Mattarella will have all the means to intervene, if the functioning of the parliamentary form of government, based on the confidence between the Government and both Houses of Parliament, reaches moments of impasses or crisis. 

Suggested citation: Giorgio Grasso, The Re-election of President of the Republic Sergio Mattarella and the Challenges for the Italian Form of Government, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 17, 2022, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2022/02/the-re-election-of-president-of-the-republic-sergio-mattarella-and-the-challenges-for-the-italian-form-of-government/

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Published on February 17, 2022
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