As Greece faces political turmoil in the new year, nearby Italy may be advancing towards the same fate. President Giorgio Napolitano is expected to announce his departure from office in a traditional end-of-the-year address on Wednesday, December 31. The president began a second term last year after legislators were unable to select a successor, but indicated he would not complete the seven-year term.
Unlike his Greek counterpart, Italy’s president is more than just a figurehead: Napolitano, or “King Giorgo” as he is called by supporters, can veto legislation, dissolve parliament and appoint prime ministers. Not to mention his de facto role as a moral compass for a government that been distinguished as of late by public squabbling and “careerism”, to quote the president. Come January 13 – the date when Italy will relinquish the E.U. presidency and Napolitano’s rumored departure – the president will leave a void in Rome and a big quandary for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The charismatic premier will need to gather support for his favored candidate in parliament. (In nearby Greece, Prime Minister Antonis Samaras’ failure to do in a similar presidential vote so prompted snap elections and an imminent political crisis.)
Possible candidates include Italy’s current Economy Minister Pier Carlo Padoan, former mayor of Rome Water Veltroni, Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti and the European Central Bank President Mario Draghi. The risk is that if Renzi can’t find backing for whichever candidate he chooses, his government’s credibility will suffer, making it hard for the premier to push through promised economic reforms. Indeed, while much has been made of Italy’s golden boy — the 39-year-old Renzi is the country’s youngest-ever prime minister — his whirlwind ascent has earned him many political enemies. What’s more, the byzantine process of selecting a president involves multiple rounds of anonymous votes by an electoral college of over 1,000 members, leaving lots of room for score settling.
Here, the example of former Prime Minister Romano Prodi looms large. Prodi was rejected as a presidential candidate in 2013, leaving his backer, the then head of the center-left Democratic Party Pierluigi Bersani, vulnerable. (Renzi took over Bersani’s position shortly thereafter.) Early elections are a possibility if Renzi finds his control over parliament faltering. However, given that Napolitano has been hinting at his departure for some time, Renzi has had time to consolidate support and reach out to unhappy factions within his party. Though to push through a presidential candidate, the prime minister will also have to negotiate alliances with rivals like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement.
Time is running out however. Once “King Giorgio” officially steps down, Italy’s parliament will have fifteen days to choose his successor. For Renzi, the clock is on.