Tony Blair looking towards his favourite mediterranean holiday destination this week would, no-doubt, feel hard-done-by. While the UK and international press had a field day when Blair’s
bully boys security forced 82 year old Walter Wolfgang out of the Labour party conference last year, hardly an eyelid is batted at the moment as an Italian pensioner is being threatened and bullied by a powerful lobby of politicians. Even more surprising when one considers that the pensioner in question is none other than Carlo Azeglio Ciampi – the Italian President.
Ciampi, eighty-five years old, is in the last days of his term as President. He has repeatedly, albeit discreetly, let it be known that he has no wish to present himself for a second term (of seven years). How is it, then, that political forces from both the centre-right and centre-left coalitions continue to endorse his re-election? Not only that, but a crop of blogs and websites have sprung up calling for his re-election – whether he likes it or not.
Ciampi has been a popular President with most Italians. A genial and warm character largely seen to have carried out his duties without political bias. He has been seen to resist political pressure from both Berlusconi and Prodi*.
A President above politics, Ciampi now, when he should be relaxing into a wished-for retirement (rather than having a gruelling schedule of public appearances to trot out platitudes about ‘solidarity’ and ‘optimism’), has sadly instead found himself a pawn in a complex political power-game.
The centre-right, which yesterday threw its full and not inconsiderable weight behind Ciampi for re-election, have most to benefit ostensibly should Ciampi be forced back into the Presidency.
Firstly there’s the fact that the President has constitutional powers to dissolve the government in certain circumstances, and, if ever there was a government likely to be dissolved, it’s one that has a majority of only two (in the Senate). Ciampi, seen as a stickler for the rules, would be preferable to a more left-leaning candidate who could use Presidential discretion to avoid dissolution. Perhaps more importantly, though, choosing Ciampi is a perfect way to sow the seeds of discontent within the centre-left coalition.
There are three major institutional positions to be filled at the start of this government’s tenure – President of the Chamber, President of the Senate, and finally President of the Republic. All positions of influence and profile. All positions that are filled through elections voted for by members of parliament, but given that Prodi’s government has a majority in both Senate and Chamber it’s all but a given that the government’s official candidate in all three elections will win. And so it has been for the first two positions: Fausto Bertinotti (Rifondazione Comunista) was elected President of the Chamber, while Franco Marini (Margherita) was elected President of the Senate. Thus out of the three main parties in the coalition, two have ‘received’ positions. The third party, Democratici di Sinistra, which is the largest of the coalition, has received nothing. Massimo D’Alema, President of the DS, made a public show of stepping back to allow Fausto Bertinotti the Presidency of the Chamber – with many suggesting that an informal agreement was made between Prodi and D’Alema allowing for a subsequent official nomination for President of the Republic.
If Ciampi suggests that he’ll bow to pressure and accept re-election, the centre-left will almost certainly have to go along and vote for him as well. To do otherwise would confirm the accusations of the centre-right that the government wants to put its ‘own men’ in all seats of insitutional power. Ciampi’s election would no-doubt leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the DS parliamentary party.
At the same time, for the centre-left the re-election of Ciampi would provide, at least, a quick and surefire solution. They have a reasonable majority in the presidential electoral college, made up of the Chamber, Senate, and representatives from the regions (where the centre-left are also in the majority), but a divisive candidate might provoke defections. Even the whiff of a defeat in an important vote such as this must be avoided.
And so it is that an old man, who has served the State long and well, is, rather than getting a golden-handshake, receiving a cross-party shove in the back. Hopefully, for his own sake, Ciampi will exercise the indifference to party politics that he has shown in the last seven years so well.
Should he refuse, one thing is certain. The eventual President will be a) a man, and b) over 50 (D’Alema, the youngest of the whispered candidates is a sprightly 57).
Despite the repeated lip-service paid by both Prodi and Berlusconi during the election campaign to increasing and supporting women’s participation in political life, no women have been seriously proposed for any of the major institutional positions. The Republic, sadly, is an ‘old boys‘ club’ in every sense.
*Ciampi disgruntled Berlusconi’s outgoing government on a number of occasions, when refusing to sign into legislation various controversial bills – amongst the most noticeable being the Gasparri laws regulating broadcasting. At the same time, immediately after this year’s election, while Berlusconi made a show of not recognising Prodi’s victory, Ciampi resisted all pressure to intervene to hasten the handover of government – something that will not have endeared him particularly to the centre-left.