Leading Italian politicians and their parties are getting ready for the election of the next head of state, a process that resembles a complex chess game where the piece delivering checkmate could, sometimes, be the one you least expect.
The presidential election will be a delicate exercise, and political players have begun preparations ahead of the showdown scheduled for early February.
Every vote counts as the peculiar election system — which includes MPs and delegates from local administrations — lends itself to plots and manoeuvrings in the best Machiavellian tradition.
Some analysts argue, for instance, that a recent law against homophobia was voted down at the end of October with the help of smaller parties as a token of their political relevance in the presidential race.
A memorable indicator of how unpredictable things can get came in 2013 when former Commission chief Romano Prodi saw his hopes of becoming the new host of the Quirinal Palace dashed by a group of 101 ‘betrayers’ — including a young Matteo Renzi — who voted in a secret ballot against the party’s order to support his candidacy.
This time, former prime minister and current MEP Silvio Berlusconi, who turned 85 in September, is expected to throw his hat into the race.
According to Corriere della Sera, last week, MPs found in their mailboxes at the House of Representatives “a monograph of Berlusconi with some of his speeches on the values of liberalism, Catholicism and civil liberties.”
Although there was no real need to introduce his thoughts to Italian politicians, the move was seen as a formal start of his election campaign.
The president of the republic is a central figure in the country’s political system as s/he is entrusted with powers to solve government crises – which, as we all know, happen quite often in Italy.
Furthermore, the president remains in office for seven years, providing a stable reference point for foreign governments no matter how overheated the internal political situation is.
Putting a controversial figure like Berlusconi at the top of the constitutional system seems too much, even for a politically creative country such as this.
But this is clearly the very last chance for Berlusconi to fulfil his dream of a lifetime. After watching other players’ openings, he made his move because he saw some remote ground to pull it off.
The key to this is — somewhat shockingly — in the Five Star Movement, which he considers the political force that can tip the balance in the end.
In a recent interview, Berlusconi surprisingly endorsed the Movement’s flagship policy, the citizens’ basic income, which is currently under attack by both the right-wing and the centre-left.
Of course, Berlusconi remains the Movement’s arch-enemy, but it is also true that the anti-establishment party has made lots of U-turns since the start of the mandate.
They are now ruling together with a collection of their previous opponents, including right-wing Lega, centre-left Democratic Party, Matteo’s Renzi’s party Italia Viva, and even Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
The other reason behind Berlusconi’s hopes is not the lack of good candidates but the difficulties in moving pieces across the Quirinal’s chessboard.
Prime Minister Mario Draghi, for instance, has already displayed supreme qualities: he convinced parties used to fighting each other to death to form a government in a sort of a ‘pax draghiana’.
At the same time, moving Draghi from the executive to the Quirinal square is complicated as this would trigger snap elections, which Five Star and PD want to avoid.
Other powerful pieces could come into play, like Paolo Gentiloni, but he is a rook that needs to be moved very cautiously because of his current job at the Commission.
In this game, Berlusconi is more of a knight — incidentally, the English translation of his historical nickname in Italy, il Cavaliere.
The knight is not as powerful as queens or rooks but can deliver spectacular checkmates with its non-linear moves.
However, moving the knight too early could be a gambit that the centre-right coalition could not afford, and many of Berlusconi’s advisers have suggested playing it cool for the moment.
Indeed, an unwritten rule in the Quirinale’s race says that the first pieces that check must be captured before they can mate.
Starting from an unfavourable position, Berlusconi has to force others to uncover their attacking moves while preparing the ground for his grand entrance at the end game.
That end game will start after the third ballot when all he needs is the majority of voters and not the two-thirds of the elective assembly.
It may be a long shot, and Il Cavaliere probably won’t become Italy’s next president, but he will undoubtedly give it a try.
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Look out for…
- Innovation Commissioner Mariya Gabriel delivers opening speech at the European Innovation Council (EIC) Summit in Brussels.
- European Parliament plenary session through 25 November.
- Fifty-third meeting of the European Economic Area (EEA) Council.
Views are the author’s.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic/Alice Taylor]