WHAT we are witnessing in Italy is remarkable, and at times scarcely believable. On April 20th, after five failed attempts to elect a new president, an electoral college that includes the members of both chambers of parliament, plumped for the incumbent, Giorgio Napolitano, who is 87 years old. Nicholas Spiro, a sovereign risk analyst, called it “the clearest indication yet of the utter dysfunctionality of Italian politics”.
Desperate to retire Mr Napolitano had ruled himself out as a candidate. But the leaders of the two biggest mainstream parties, Pier Luigi Bersani, the secretary general of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD), and Silvio Berlusconi, the de facto leader of the conservative People of Freedom (PdL), had earlier gone to the Quirinal palace to beg him to stay on. Poor Mr Napolitano wearily agreed.
In the ballot that followed he received 738 votes out of a possible 1,007. It is the first time in the 65-year history of the Italian republic that a president has been voted in for a second term.
The insistence on Mr Napolitano’s return was both an extraordinary admission of defeat, and an equally striking act of defiance. It came against a background of almost deafening calls from the younger generation of Italians for new faces, new policies and a form of politics less oppressively dominated by the country’s almighty parties.
The most obvious and radical expression of their demands is in the Five Star Movement (M5S), co-founded by a former comedian, Beppe Grillo. But it is also clearly discernible in the radical Left, Ecology and Freedom (SEL) party and in parts of the traditional parties, notably the moderate faction within the PD that looks to Matteo Renzi, the young mayor of Florence. The mainstream party leaderships ignored them all.
Mr Bersani and Mr Berlusconi had originally tried to stitch-up the presidency by agreeing on Franco Marini, a former Christian Democrat trade unionist. When that failed, and with the moment approaching at which a candidate needed only to get more than 50% of the votes, Mr Bersani changed tack. He opted instead for a clearly partisan choice, the former centre-left prime minister and European Commission president, Romano Prodi. But the luckless Mr Prodi’s candidacy was torpedoed by rebels from within the PD. It remains unclear whether they were members of Mr Renzi’s admirers or followers of another ex-prime minister, Massimo D’Alema, who helped bring down Mr Prodi back in the 1990s.
At all events, factional interests took precedence over those of the party in a way that its members, and the voters, will not easily forget. Mr Bersani, doubly humiliated, announced that he would resign as soon as the presidential contest was settled.
When the deciding vote was cast in favour of Mr Napolitano, Mr Bersani wept. Mr Berlusconi smiled broadly. And with good reason. The re-election of Mr Napolitano leaves the PD (never a very convincing fusion of ex-communists and former Christian Democrats) in outright disarray. It also revives the prospects of a left-right coalition of the sort that Mr Berlusconi has been calling for ever since the general election two months ago gave Italy a hung parliament. That would not perhaps hand the widely discredited former prime minister a seat in cabinet, but it would most certainly hand him renewed influence over the affairs of the nation at a time when he is a defendant in four trials.
That is one possible outcome. The name most widely touted as the next head of government was that of the 74 year-old Giuliano Amato who first held the job more than 20 years ago. The other possibility is that Mr Napolitano could form another non-party, technocratic government like the one headed by Mario Monti, the outgoing prime minister.
Mr Grillo called for a demonstration in Rome on April 21st, describing the re-election of the president a “coup d’etat” by the old guard. It was not that. The parties who elected Mr Napolitano took roughly two-thirds of the votes in the general election. And, in any case, Mr Grillo, who has never been elected by anyone, is not in a position to give lessons on democracy.
There is a strong case for arguing that this lacerating presidential ballot has re-drawn more starkly than ever before the battle lines in Italian politics. Once they ran between right and left. Now they separate the old and tired from the new and young. For the foreseeable future, the old and tired are firmly back in control.