When in trouble, go big

After three days of drama, Italian lawmakers have elected Sergio Mattarella, a constitutional court judge and a former defense minister, as Italy’s new head of state.

The fourth round of voting has seen 665 votes casted in his favour – way more than the 505 he needed to win. Within this numbers lies a little political masterpiece by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

As I wrote in this primer, Mr Renzi had three options to choose from. He went for the third one, the most risky of all. And he succeeded.

Mr Renzi proposed Mr Mattarella at a meeting of the Democratic Party’s 415 electors, in what many commentators described as a very bold move, even for someone not new to radical choices like him.

Although the assembly unanimously accepted Mr Renzi’s candidate, the hazard of the secret ballot could have jeopardised the entire strategy. Furthermore, friction in the leftwing of his own party over the recent labour market reforms increased considerably the risk of failure.

The first achievement of the whole operation has been to reunite the Democratic Party (PD) under one roof. By opting for a candidate with a high institutional profile, he re-established his authority over the party whilst reducing the strife with the left. Differences between his vision and the old nomenclature’s on how to run the party have become over the last six months a serious issue on a daily basis. Pushing for a name such as Mr Mattarella brought together even his harshest critics.

Though the PD was united behind his leader, Mr Renzi was still 100-sh votes short of getting his candidate through.

With a second, brave move, he decided to hold back until the fourth round of voting – when an absolute majority is needed instead of the two third of the assembly – and spent this precious time to bring MPs from his coalition partners (two centrists parties) on his side. A Machiavellian move, as the Independent has put it today.

During these two days Mr Renzi strengthened the tenure oh his government by openly backing Mr Mattarella, a veteran centrist from the defunct Christian Democrat party. Both a name and a history that his government allies couldn’t possibly turn down.

The third and perhaps most resounding victory by Mr Renzi has been leaving Mr Berlusconi isolated and with no political maneuvering whatsoever. The former PM was hoping to get a jointly agreed candidate as a result of the pact the two have struck more than a year ago over electoral and constitutional reforms. An unusual alliance that has served the former well and left the latter with no political gain and a lot to explain to his disaffected electorate.

Mr Berlusconi refused to back Mr Mattarella, but at least half of Forza Italia’s members took advantage of the secret ballot and disobey the party line giving him their vote instead. A move that has weakened Mr Berlusconi’s authority beyond measure.

Fourth, the choice of Mr Mattarella is a victory itself: a moral one. The new president, whose fight against the Mafia – who killed his brother Piersanti while governor of Sicily in 1980 – earned him a reputation for fortitude and honesty, will replace Giorgio Napolitano in a pivotal role for the country’s future.

What once was nothing more than a ceremonial role has become a vital asset of the political spectrum, and Mr Napolitano’s lead through one of the darkest times of Italy’s recent history stands as clear evidence.

With a single name and in two and a half days, Mr Renzi successfully united his party, kept the coalition government alive, pushed Mr Berlusconi into a corner and gave Italy a new, decent President. What was seen as a key test for the PM leadership has proved to be an unquestionable political victory for Mr Renzi. Until next time.

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