The Italian Presidential Elections and the Politics of Trust

The Italian electoral college will start voting for the successor to Sergio Mattarella as President of the Republic on 24 January. Between now and then, at least two pages of every major national newspaper will be devoted to rumours and speculation about what Italy’s party leaders are planning, who might get drafted as a candidate, and how the votes are likely to line up. It is the usual blizzard of noise that comes at the end of the white semester — the last six months of any presidential mandate, during which the President of the Republic is no longer able to dissolve parliament. What is at stake is not just who will take over the leadership of the Italian state but also whether the current government can hold together and whether the any new President will send Italy’s parliamentarians back to face the voters. By implication, Italy’s successful implementation of its national recovery and resilience plan is also on the table — together with all that entails for the rest of the European Union.

The politics of trust defines the final days before the voting starts and remains central through the election and until whatever government follows is firmly in control over workable majorities in both chambers of the Italian parliament. Party leaders have to trust one-another to stick to their agreements across the aisle and within their ideological alliances. They also have to trust that those same leaders can actually carry the votes they promise when the electoral college starts voting. This means those same leaders have to trust that the different currents within their own political movements will do as they have promised and that the leaders of those factions can control the rank and file. This pyramid of trust goes all the way down to individual bargains. The voting is done by secret ballot on blank sheets of paper. Anything is possible and no one can be held personally to account.

Finally, everyone has to trust that those who accept the call to stand for President will live up to the high standards of that office and, as Mattarella has made clear, that they will defend the President’s constitutional role. They have to trust that the governing coalition that held together in the run-up to the elections will not fall apart immediately thereafter, that the prime minister will agree to remain in office, that the party leaders will not get burned by the experience of the elections, and that whatever government program emerges on the other side of the white semester resembles whatever the government was pursuing before the successive rounds of voting started. Anytime an Italian journalist or commentator makes a confident assertion (or a quiet assumption) about one of these areas, it is worth thinking about who they have to trust to make that happen and whether that person, party, or people might have other motivations.

The reason why newspaper editors are willing to print endless rounds of speculation and rumour is that trust among Italian politicians is in short supply — not just in terms of their mutual agreements but also in terms of their ability to predict each-other’s behaviour. The party leaders do not trust one-another, they do not trust the divisions within their own political movements, and they do not trust the rank-and-file as those individual members express their views via secret ballot. They can identify a few political leaders who can live up to the high standards of the office, but they cannot trust that they will be able to hold the country, the government, or the parliament together. Even the best of intentions can lead to confusing, contradictory action.

The only thing Italy’s political class appears to trust is the self-interest of individual members of parliament, few of whom are eager to face early elections. But they cannot trust that those individuals will follow a coherent and productive strategy to extend their time in office or that chaos will not result from the contradictions that emerge as individual members of the electoral college use their votes to send messages of support or opposition to their political leaders. Lack of trust creates uncertainty, and uncertainty does strange things to the way individuals interpret and pursue their supposedly ‘rational’ self-interest.

The best way for Italy to avoid that kind of confusion is for Italy’s political leaders to show they can work together. The unprecedented national unity government headed by Mario Draghi is a major step in that direction, but it is not enough. That is the message Draghi gave in his end of the year press conference. There is no way, Draghi insisted, that the governing coalition can divide over the election of the President of the Republic and then somehow magically come back together at the end of that contest. Trust is a necessary precondition for letting bygones be bygones. Once that trust is broken, its healing power is lost.

If Draghi is correct, there is no point waiting for the fourth round of voting to start placing bets on Italy’s political stability and also no point in holding out hope that Mattarella will accept to stand for a second term. But the time Italy’s electoral college has gone through the first three rounds of voting without forging a supermajority to elect the next President, the divisions within the governing coalition will be manifest; and so will the divisions across the centre-left and centre-right coalitions and within individual political movements. Italy’s political leaders do not have to know how individuals voted to see where and how the numbers do not add up.

A fourth-round candidate may get a supermajority, instead of the simple majority that is needed from that round onward. When they do so, however, whatever trust may have existed within Draghi’s national unity coalition will have been violated. The ability of that coalition to work together in the shadow of national elections that will have to take place by March 2023 at the latest is hard to imagine. The situation today is not the same as it was in 2013, when Giorgio Napolitano agreed to stand for an unprecedented second term in office. That was a new parliament looking ahead to a five-year mandate and facing an angry electorate with little tolerance for political games. A grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right was better than any conceivable alternative, at least for the mainstream parties. The same is not true today. This parliament has just over a year to run at best. The only real alternatives are about timing — and Lega leader Matteo Salvini made it clear in the summer of 2019 that all parts of the calendar are in play.

The question is whether Italy’s political leaders can avoid that kind of divisiveness and the instability it would generate. The existence of the national unity government suggests they can. The priority will be to build trust in the run-up to the presidential elections — across the national unity coalition, among the centre-left and centre-right alliances, and within the political movements. That will be a complicated set of negotiations, particularly given the many and conflicting personal ambitions that are in play. Nevertheless, those negotiations cannot be avoided if Italy wants to demonstrate its potential to reform and recover with European assistance. Trust exists across nations as well as within them. In that sense, the politics of trust is not only vital for Italy’s future, it is also vital for the future of the European Union.

These reviews were originally published by Encompass. This blog post reuses the Shutterstock photo from that original posting. You can find the edited version here.