Italy, Land of Immortals

02/06/2015 09:48 am ET | Updated Apr 08, 2015

Intrigues, opera, drama: That is what we love in politics, and Italy has plenty of them! The election of the 12th president, Sergio Mattarella, was yet another case in point -- with an unexpected finale.

White-haired since a young age, blue-eyed Sicilian Sergio Mattarella is a 74-year-old law professor turned politician following the brutal homicide in 1980 of his brother Piersanti -- then Sicily's governor -- at the mafia's hands.

The president is largely a ceremonial figure in Italy -- due to the monarchic and fascist past -- but former President Giorgio Napolitano progressively pushed the boundaries of the Constitution, eventually becoming Italy's kingmaker. A very well-respected figure abroad -- President Obama is particularly fond of him -- he wanted to politically terminate Silvio Berlusconi; he supposedly achieved that in November 2011, when Berlusconi was ousted from government. Napolitano then named three successive non-elected governments: Mario Monti's (2011), Enrico Letta's (2013), and Matteo Renzi's (2014). He would skillfully guide the governments' actions, eventually sending bills back or refusing to nominate ministers he did not approve of. As he approached 90, his wife Clio decided she had had enough, and he finally resigned.

Ironically, when Napolitano announced his resignation, Berlusconi -- though still bound to perform community work and banned from politics because of fiscal fraud -- had become Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's most fundamental ally in Parliament, despite the wide unpopularity of their so-called "Nazareno Pact." Yet the alliance served both Renzi and Berlusconi's personal priorities well. Berlusconi foremost values the well-being of his economic empire and wants his ban from politics cleared off; he thus wanted a president who would potentially consider pardoning him. He has a soft spot for the Florentine prime minister, who is apparently achieving many of the reforms Berlusconi wanted to do but never managed to. Renzi wants to have enough votes in Parliament to bypass opposition in his own party. He also wanted a president who -- just like his ministers -- would not overshadow or oppose him either domestically or internationally.

Mattarella's election was totally unexpected and was definitely Renzi's masterpiece. It may even emerge as a turning point for Italy's politics. To better appreciate what happened and how it may affect Italy's future, we need to go back in time to understand the complicated dynamics within the ruling Democratic Party (PD).

During the Cold War, Italy experienced a blocked democracy. As inclusion of the strong Communist Party (PCI) in government was perceived as risky, the U.S.-supported Christian Democratic Party (DC) was the major stakeholder among the various governments' coalition parties (Socialists, Social Democrats, Liberals and Republicans), thus granting stability to the country, despite constant government turnovers.

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 allowed for new political scenarios and a redistribution of power: PCI transformed into the more moderate Left Democratic Party (PDS), while a wave of anti-political sentiments due to the anti-bribery "Clean Hands" investigations wiped away the old ruling parties.

Being a Socialist or a Christian Democrat became reason for public scorn. Part of the Christian Democrats thus joined former TV tycoon Silvio Berlusconi's new party Forza Italia, while others formed a small center-right party allied with it. Those opposing Berlusconi, the so-called Left Christian Democrats, formed the Popular Party (PPI). Yet, in 2001, what remained of it merged with PDS, giving life to today's Democratic Party (PD). Two groups, however, distrusted each other, diverged on moral issues like same-sax marriage, and were in constant competition for party leadership -- mostly in the former communists' hands. What essentially united them was hatred for Silvio Berlusconi.

With Berlusconi ousted from government in November 2011 and subsequently banned from Parliament due to fiscal fraud, PD's internal contradictions began to surface. The Democratic Party lost a predicted victory in the 2013 elections and had to form a coalition government with a group of Berlusconi's runaways, under the lead of former Christian Democrat Enrico Letta. However, the PD leadership resisted the calls for change coming from Florence's Mayor Matteo Renzi. In truth, Letta's government began to change things in Italy but failed in an essential task: communication.

In April 2013 Napolitano's seven-year term ended. The Democratic Party leadership managed the presidential election so poorly that Napolitano had to step in for a second term despite his old age. That provided the opportunity for Renzi to bring a new challenge to the party leadership and finally win it. Within PD, however, the former communists' discomfort grew, as Renzi is a former Christian Democrat too.

Strategically, Renzi's first decision as PD's leader was to formally join the European Socialist and Democratic Party, the former communists' European political family. Federica Mogherini -- herself coming from the PDS ranks and the architect of the operation -- was rewarded with the post of EU High Representative, in a risky diplomatic operation. This, however, made the former Christian Democrats uncomfortable, a feeling that grew when Renzi brutally ousted Enrico Letta from government in February 2014. Renzi therefore had a double opposition within his party, and mismanaging the presidential elections could have been fatal, especially since his popularity rates were severely dropping.

Electing a president is a tricky business in Italy. Parliament -- with the addition of regional representatives, in all 1,009 people -- elects the president. Two thirds of the votes are needed in the first three rounds, and then the quorum reduces to the simple majority of those having the right to vote. As observers predicted failure, both oppositions within PD began savoring payback time.

Renzi and Berlusconi met several times ahead of the election, giving the idea of yet another agreement between the two. The frontrunner appeared to be former Socialist Prime Minister and current judge at the Constitutional Court Giuliano Amato, supported by both Berlusconi and former communists within PD. Amato, however, would have risked overshadowing Renzi, especially in international relations, which the prime minister sees as photo ops promoting his image domestically. Renzi also feared possible defections in the secrecy of the voting booth.

Unexpectedly, and typically last-minute, Renzi reunited his party, proposing only one name: Sergio Mattarella. A former Left Christian Democrat, Mattarella had been, among other things, Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister but was no longer active in politics, as he was also serving as a judge in the Constitutional Court. Though very surprising, his choice appealed to every constituency within PD. It meant the end of the pact with Berlusconi (incidentally, Mattarella had resigned from government in 1990, opposing a bill favoring Berlusconi's TVs). He appealed to conservatives because of his sound Catholic moral values. As a Sicilian, Mattarella naturally symbolizes national unity, thus challenging Renzi's most dangerous adversary, the Northern League's charismatic leader, Matteo Salvini. Finally yet importantly, after 20 years of agony, former Christian Democrats got their long-awaited moral vindication, thus securing their vote and their loyalty to PD. Of course, that also led Italian media to ironize on that fact that Christian Democrats never really die.

There was, however, still a risk that the left opposition within PD would secretly vote against Mattarella just to damage Renzi, just like -- they claimed -- his followers had done in 2013. Surprisingly, Mattarella ended up with over 50 votes more than expected: As Renzi triumphed -- he clearly will not have rivals within PD for a long time -- observers celebrated yet another Berlusconi funeral.

But this is Italy, and things are hardly the way they appear to be at first sight. Yes, of course, Berlusconi is publicly growling and making a big fuss, yet, personally invited by Mattarella, he happily attended the inaugural ceremony -- unlike Grillo, the real big loser of the election, his followers having proven unable to deal with the complexities of Italian politics. More interestingly, soon after the election, not only did Berlusconi see his social service reduced, but the government announced that it will soon introduce a bill decriminalizing fiscal fraud.

So one may wonder: Where did the extra votes really come from? Who cast them, securing Mattarella's election even in case of defections within PD? Was it not, after all, just a very skillfully played performance by the Renzi-Berlusconi duo (and their closest advisors)?

While only time will tell, the clues are numerous. It also remains to be seen how Mattarella will choose to play his game in domestic politics: His reserved character shall not be confused with weakness; rather the contrary.

One thing is for sure, however: Never say someone is politically dead in Italy. It is, after all, the Land of the Great Immortals... and stay tuned for more of Renzi and Berlusconi's operetta in the future -- with a spritz of Christian Democracy!