By Marco Pellerey for Global Risk Insights
Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano, 89 years old and a former high-ranking member of the Italian Communist Party, leaves at a critical political junction, as Parliament debates sweeping constitutional reforms that include ending “perfect bicameralism” by stripping the Senate of much of its legislative power, halving the number of Deputies and overhauling the electoral law.
In Italy the president is elected by a joint session of Parliament comprising of over 1,000 elected officials every seven years. Unlike his German counterpart or other European monarchs, the Italian President holds considerable powers that go beyond purely ceremonial functions. In his tenure, Napolitano sought to protect and strengthen the institution of the presidency by intervening often and boldly in domestic affairs; so much so that for many across the political spectrum, he has ceased to be an impartial figure and a representative super partes.
Napolitano’s presidency was marked by turbulence and elusive hopes for political renewal. As he reluctantly acceded to an unprecedented second term in 2013, the first since the establishment of the Republic in 1946, he found himself presiding over the third unelected Prime Minister in less than three years.
In the midst of instability, Napolitano cast himself as a powerful one-man political force, something his predecessors carefully avoided. Legal scholars have defended his track record, but a number of critics have accused him of repeatedly overstepping his constitutional boundaries in order to promote a narrow political agenda.
His influence became evident when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was ousted from power in February 2011. Napolitano – largely credited as the architect of Berlusconi’s downfall – handpicked Mario Monti as a successor from the world of academia. This was a contested move for those who wanted a politician in charge.
Napolitano’s fix was swift: He exercised his exclusive right to anoint Monti senator for life before nominating him Prime Minister a week later. The Machiavellian move outfoxed critics and foes, but earned him the nickname of ‘King Giorgio’ in the press for his shrewd tactics.
Monti was welcomed on the international stage. But domestically, hopes for a ‘technocratic solution’ for the country’s ills quickly faded. The perception of an imminent catastrophe (bolstered by the famous rising “spread” between German and Italian bonds) initially swung public sympathy in Monti’s favour against the backdrop of a discredited political class.
But a series of political blunders, a poorly thought out pension reform that left over 160,000 people unaccounted for, and harsh austerity measures were easily exploited by rivals and parliamentary factions.
The collapse of Monti’s government barely a year into his mandate led to a bitterly fought election in early 2013 with no clear winners. Napolitano promptly assembled a “Group of Sages” to draw up a roadmap for political reform. Constitutionalists and palace experts hinged their justification on a legal precedent that occurred in Holland in 2010, when Queen Beatrix urged political representatives to quickly negotiate an end of political deadlock.
But to many observers, this sounded like a feeble defense to mask an intrusive entry into executive decision-making. The group was composed of 20 like-minded veteran politicians arbitrarily picked by Napolitano who were aligned with his pro-European vision. The experiment was ultimately inconclusive but indicative of Napolitano’s willingness to sit in the driver’s seat.
Unscathed by the failure of Monti and the Sages, Napolitano still won the next round. Out of the fuzzy electoral result, he imposed his candidate for Prime Minister in over two-months of back door negotiations. The uncharismatic Enrico Letta, a well-networked Rome insider, formed a shaky coalition government composed of the Democratic Party and its archrival Silvio Berlusconi, leaving comedian Beppe Grillo’s grassroots “5 Star Movement” as the main opposition.
The Financial Times remarked, “There is little doubt that this will be a presidential government, giving rise to a debate about Mr Napolitano’s role as a master puppeteer.” Meanwhile, Giorgio Napolitano’s seven-year term came to an end. After failing to reach an agreement over his succession- an exhausted Parliament re-elected him to a second term.
Napolitano’s final blow came from Florence. A helpless Letta was unceremoniously forced to step down after only 10 months in office following an internal party coup, in which Metteo Renzi, then Mayor of the famous Tuscan city, emerged as both leader of the PD and Prime Minister. Marking a departure from previous deeply unpopular leaders, Renzi managed to rally huge support and cemented his credentials by winning the European elections of 2014 harnessing 40.8% of ballots and becoming the most voted leader in Europe.
Renzi embodies a young breed of leftwing politicians who profess open hostility to the ‘old guard’ and seek at least in rhetoric – to break apart the old system of entrenched interests and political kinship knitted both Left and Right in the past 50 years.
Napolitano is now isolated and cannot coast on the cooperation of a complacent Prime Minister chosen by himself. Age is not the only evident divide between Napolitano and Renzi: the first is a poised but hardened Marxist veteran, a product of Italy’s post-WWII reconstructive politics; the other is a master of twitter hashtags, who speaks plainly and dresses casually. Renzi also just turned 40 last week, which in the Italian gerontocratic system is equivalent to being 14.
Napolitano made clear his dislike for Beppe Grillo’s movement and exhibited skepticism towards Renzi’s quest to rid his party of its traditional leadership. Old and isolated, King Giorgio withdrew his shield and retired. His move was expected, as it would have been difficult for him to carry on the heavy duties until the completion of the mandate in 2020, by which he would have been close to 96.
The question remains as to who will pick up his burdensome legacy and whether his successor will continue his strategy of active involvement in political debates with the same thrust.