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Italy poised to re-elect president to end political wrangle

Italian lawmakers appear poised to re-elect the incumbent president Sergio Mattarella as head of state, ending a week-long stalemate over the selection and ensuring the survival of Mario Draghi’s government.

The push to reinstall Mattarella, an 80-year-old lawyer and judge, for a second-seven-year term comes as Draghi’s fragile national unity government is in growing danger of collapsing, amid escalating tension over the presidential election process.

Mattarella, who pulled Draghi out of retirement last year to appoint as prime minister, had previously indicated he was unwilling to serve a second term, despite popular calls for his re-election.

But with Rome’s political climate turning poisonous, Draghi met Mattarella at an official function on Saturday morning and urged him to reconsider in the interests of political stability.

Draghi later called political leaders to encourage them to support Mattarella for a second term, an Italian government official told the Financial Times.

Lawmakers from across the political spectrum called on Mattarella at his lavish presidential palace, the Quirinale, on Saturday afternoon, shortly before an eighth round of voting, to formally appeal to him to serve a second term.

“The absolute priority is to secure the country, providing stability through the figure of Mattarella at the Quirinale and Draghi as prime minister, and avoiding at all costs plunging into a period of total chaos,” said Daniela Sbrollini, a senator from Italia Viva, a small centrist party.

“Asking Mattarella to remain at the Quirinale after he had expressly asked not to be elected, shows a certain fragility and weakness of politics,” she said. “But with this stability perhaps the political system can be strengthened.”

A lawmaker from the Five Star movement, who asked not to be named, said: “Everyone across the political spectrum knew very well that Mattarella’s re-election, was the only solution that would not hurt anyone, not even Draghi. It is the only solution that crystallises the current equilibrium.”

Mattarella’s re-election will please Italy’s business community and international markets, which had been keeping a close eye on events, fearing that a messy, divisive presidential election could derail the country’s reform momentum.

Italy is set to be the largest recipient of funds from the EU’s €750bn recovery programme, but must meet an ambitious reform timetable to get each tranche of funds. The programme’s toughest reforms were front-loaded into the two years that it was assumed Draghi would be prime minister.

Draghi himself was considered a highly suitable potential successor to Mattarella, but it was feared that his ascent to the presidency could trigger the collapse of the government and propel Italy to early elections.

“This looks like a great outcome for businesses because it ensures stability and we can count on Draghi to see through the recovery plan,” said one Milan-based executive who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the eighth round of voting.

“Clearly it’s a very bad outcome for Italian political leaders who were not able to find an alternative to Draghi as prime minister, and Mattarella as president.”

Alessandro Zan, a member of the centre left Democratic Party, said that, “in a situation that risked spiralling out of control, the appeal to President Mattarella was the last card to pull Italy out of the chaos and get back to work.”

Italian lawmakers filed a deluge of blank ballots in early rounds of votes at the start of the week while attempting to forge a consensus on a presidential candidate. But the political atmosphere soured on Friday, as Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing League, unsuccessfully sought to elect a favoured political nominee as president over the objections of leftist coalition partners.

He was also gearing up for a similar gambit with another potential nominee, in conjunction with the leader of the Five Star Movement.

Enrico Letta, secretary-general of the Democratic Party, had warned that such unilateral nominations, over the objections of government allies, would “represent the most direct way of blowing everything up”.

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