Italy’s President, 80-year-old Sergio Mattarella, recruited to stay on for 2nd term

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— Italian President Sergio Mattarella was pulled away from his impending retirement and reelected on Saturday to a second seven-year term as the country’s head of state, ending days of political impasse by party leaders that risked eroding the nation’s credibility.

Earlier on Saturday, lawmakers entreated Mr. Mattarella, 80, who had said repeatedly he didn’t want a second mandate, to change his mind after lawmakers in Parliament and regional delegates voted fruitlessly for days, trying to reach a consensus on other possible candidates.

Mr. Mattarella won in the eighth round of voting when he clinched the minimum of 505 votes needed from the eligible 1,009 Grand Electors. Applause broke out in Parliament, prompting the Chamber of Deputies president to interrupt his reading of the ballots. The count then resumed, with Mr. Mattarella going on to win 759 votes.

In a brief, televised statement from the Quirinal presidential palace, Mr. Mattarella told the nation he couldn’t let his personal desires prevail over a “sense of responsibility” during the ”grave health, economic and social emergency” Italy was enduring in the COVID-19 pandemic. He added his commitment “to interpret the expectations and hopes of our fellow citizens.”

Mr. Mattarella’s first term ends on Thursday. Ahead of the presidential election this week, Mr. Mattarella had even rented an apartment in Rome to prepare for his move from the presidential palace.

But after a seventh round of balloting in six days in Parliament failed to yield any consensus on a presidential candidate, party whips and regional governors visited Mr. Mattarella at the presidential palace Saturday to reenlist him.

Rai state TV said Premier Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who is leading a pandemic unity government, telephoned party leaders to encourage the lobbying. Mr. Draghi had previously indicted he would be willing to move into the president’s role, but some party leaders featured that would prompt an early election and more political instability for Italy.

Mr. Draghi hailed Mr. Mattarella’s re-election as “splendid news for Italians.”

“I am grateful to the President for his choice in accommodating the very strong will of Parliament to re-elect him to a second mandate,” the premier said.

“You don’t change a winning team,” former Premier Matteo Renzi told reporters ahead of the final vote.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the center-right Forza Italia party he founded and who a week earlier dropped his own bid to be president, said that unity “today can only be found around” the figure of Mr. Mattarella.

The head of the populist 5-Star Movement, Parliament’s largest force, former Premier Giuseppe Conte, also praised Mr. Mattarella as “the guarantor of everybody, impartial, authoritative.”

Mr. Conte’s praise for Mr. Mattarella was all the more remarkable considering how, when Mr. Conte was trying to form Italy’s first populist-led government in 2018, Mr. Mattarella vetoed his pick of a euro-skeptic economist for the post of finance minister, an appointment likely to have shaken financial markets’ faith in Italy.

Also lobbying for Mr. Mattarella was right-wing League party leader Matteo Salvini, whose candidates failed to take off in the early rounds. In 2019, Mr. Salvini suffered the humiliation of seeing Mr. Mattarella turn to Mr. Conte to form a government, this time without the League, after Mr. Salvini yanked his support in a failed bid to grab the premiership for himself.

But analysts noted the possible fallout from the spectacle of the nation’s top political leaders squabbling for days.

“There is a tangible risk that within the ruling majority infighting will become more pronounced in the months ahead as the fruitless and chaotic efforts to replace Mr. Mattarella have left deep scars on the parties and their leaders,” said Wolfango Piccoli of Teneo, a consulting and advisory firm.

Going into the election, Mr. Conte and some other leaders said a woman should finally become Italy’s head of state. But those efforts quickly fizzled. Among the disappointed woman’s advocates in Italy was Linda Laura Sabbadini, a statistician for the government’s statistics bureau who pioneered using data on gender to understand women’s progress in Italy.

“Politics cut a terrible figure in these days,” Ms. Sabbadini said on state TV.

Italy’s presidency is a largely ceremonial role but the president can send legislation back to Parliament for changes and tap party leaders to try to form a government if a coalition fails.

During the pandemic, Mr. Mattarella staunchly backed the nation’s vaccination campaign — one of the more successful ones in Europe — as critical to Italy’s economic recovery.

Pope Francis in a congratulatory telegram said Saturday that Mr. Mattarella was showing a “spirit of generosity” in pandemic times marked by “widespread discomfort and uncertainty.”

A Palermo native, Sergio Mattarella began his career in Parliament in 1983. He was active in the Catholic social movement faction of the Christian Democrats, then the dominant post-war party in Italy. Mr. Mattarella had served as a judge on the nation’s constitutional court from 2011 until his first election as head of state on Jan. 31, 2015.

Mr. Mattarella’s brother, Piersanti Mattarella, was assassinated by the Sicilian Mafia in 1980 while serving as that island’s governor.

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