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Italy's president is a voice of reason against populism

Italy was able to shed a political leader who was given a chance and proved unsuitable.

By Jon Van Housen & Mariella Radaelli

Published: Sun 8 Sep 2019, 8:00 PM

Last updated: Sun 8 Sep 2019, 10:23 PM

Known almost as much for their passionate opinions as their luscious pasta, the Italians have had 61 separate governing coalitions since the end of WWII. On average, all the ceremony, pomp and promises ushering in a new government have been held about every 15 months since the country's republic was founded in 1946.
That's about how long the most recent failed coalition lasted, as well. Following the populist wave that swept much of the Western world, Italy's 5-Star Movement (M5S) and Lega parties cobbled together a coalition in the early summer of 2018 that seemed an unlikely fit. The M5S is an anti-establishment, almost New Age, party particularly strong in the south, while the Lega started as a rightwing movement to defend the north from the vagaries of southern Italy.
As neither party had the majority in parliament needed to govern, President Sergio Mattarella stepped in. The Italian constitution forged after WWII - no doubt influenced by Italy's history of disputing city states down through history - has a very important and powerful component designed to bring conciliation and attempts at stability: Il Presidente della Repubblica, who can reject and suggest members of government and even governments themselves. Of course, with that much power, the ideal president should be surpassingly wise and above the political fray. Mattarella, the 12th president since the founding of the republic, seems supremely qualified. Among his many other achievements in public life, he served as a constitutional court judge and vice premier of Italy.
The story of his family no doubt gives him greater depth, as well. The son of a political leader in Sicily, Sergio Mattarella had a brother, Piersanti, who was assassinated by the Sicilian mafia in 1980 as he served as president of the regional government of Sicily. The confluence of events and experience have forged an elder statesman that seems more than reassuring in the fiery atmosphere of Italian politics - he is indispensable. 
Now 78 years old, the ever-calm Sergio Mattarella seems to brim with wisdom and good will. A familiar figure on news programmes, his blue eyes sparkle with kindness whether he is leading consultations on a new government, heading ceremonies to honour the fallen or showing a group of students around the Palazzo del Quirinale, the historic building on the Quirinal hill that houses his office in Rome. Following the inconclusive results of elections in 2018, it was Mattarella who virtually handpicked lawyer Giuseppe Conte to serve as prime minister, even though Conte was not a member of the M5S or Lega parties. The two disparate factions also had to sign a contract with Mattarella's imprimatur binding them to their clearly outlined promises.
Despite the effort, that government dissolved 14 months later as Matteo Salvini, leader of the Lega, called for snap elections. Attempting to ride a surge in popularity as he advocated lower taxes on entrepreneurs and draconian defense of Italy's coastline to turn back seaborne migrants, Salvini tried to grasp the levers of power for himself. The bid failed spectacularly as the circuit breakers in the Italian constitution kicked in.
In a scathing resignation speech, Conte accused Salvini of absenteeism, overstepping his authority, exposing Italy to financial panic and ongoing conflicts with the European Union to further his own aims.
So again led by Mattarella, the M5S began to negotiate, this time with Democratic Party (PD), to form a new coalition. If successful, it would force Salvini and the Lega from power.
Throughout August, a steady stream of familiar names joined lesser known M5S members in consultations with Mattarella. It seemed almost insurmountable as the two former sworn enemies tried to hammer out an agreement that would forestall new elections and Salvini's bid to become prime minister. Yet day by day, concessions were made and intractable members of the PD stepped aside. Last week, Mattarella again swore in an Italian government with all the familiar pomp and ceremony.
The newest coalition will see Conte continue as prime minister, with former vice-premier Luigi Di Maio from the M5S moved to foreign minister and PD members placed in the important jobs of economy minister and commissioner to the European Union.
Markets breathed a sigh of relief with the defiant Savini gone, for the time being at least, and the more qualified PD helping guide attempts to invigorate Italy's lackluster economy.
Americans who chuckle at the revolving door of governments in other counties might instead be feeling a pang of envy right now. Italy was able to shed a political leader who was given a chance and proved unsuitable.
After getting a good look at Donald Trump, many in the US might likely yearn for a Mattarella-like figure who could put an end to a leader who seems unqualified at best, or possibly a profoundly disturbed personality at worst. Many are now wondering if the much-vaunted US constitution has all the circuit breakers it really needs. After all, who wouldn't want a kindly, wise "uncle" helping guide the country?
Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are editors at www.luminosityitalia.com

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