Renzi Tests Party, Government in Key Vote for Italian Presidency

Italian Premier Matteo Renzi is preparing to test his party’s loyalty as well as the support for his one-year-old government in a key vote for Italy’s presidency.

Renzi, who proposed Constitutional Court judge and former Defense Minister Sergio Mattarella for head of state, will see Saturday whether his Democratic Party’s formal backing will translate into concrete action in a secret ballot.

Renzi will also discover whether or not his main ally within the governing coalition, the New Center-Right or NCD of Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, will vote for his candidate, in a move that could lead to a government crisis.

“I don’t think Renzi can govern until 2018 with three different majorities” former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s party chief whip in the Chamber of Deputies Renato Brunetta said in remarks broadcast by SkyTG24. ’’One with Alfano for the government, one with us for the reforms, one with the minority of his own party to choose the head of state.’’

Renzi’s surprise decision to propose Mattarella after days of confrontation with Berlusconi to find a bipartisan candidate has strained the two leaders’ alliance on constitutional reforms.

Thin Margin

Assuming there are no defections, Renzi’s PD can count on 446 electors. Civic Choice, GAL and other small parties which have endorsed Mattarella would bring an additional 60 votes to Renzi. The Left, Ecology and Freedom Party, or SEL, which is in the opposition and fields about 34 electors, has also signaled it may support Mattarella. That would be enough to elect a president from the fourth round Saturday, where the required majority will drop to 505 from the previous two-thirds.

Still, defections within the PD’s left-wing minority, which has harshly opposed some of Renzi’s flagship reforms such as the labor market overhaul, cannot be ruled out.

In April 2013, the PD failed to elect its candidate for president, former premier Romano Prodi, amid the defection of about 100 lawmakers. That forced Pier Luigi Bersani to resign as party leader.

“If Renzi manages to foster unity within his PD party, it could be an encouraging sign for economic reforms, even if implementation will remain challenging,” Marco Stringa, an economist at Deutsche Bank AG in London, said in a note to clients this week.

Long-Term Challenge

The fourth vote by 1,009 presidential electors is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. local time Saturday, after most lawmakers cast blank ballots in the first three rounds amid the political maneuvering.

While Renzi said he’s confident a new president will be elected Saturday, political observers also look at long-term challenges, including the one-year-old alliance with Berlusconi which has been crucial in pushing forward the country’s election law. His Forza Italia electors will cast blank ballots in the fourth round, Brunetta said Friday.

This puts Alfano, a former ally of the 78-year-old billionaire who broke away from his mentor in 2013, in the difficult position of balancing his institutional role in the government with his party’s ties to the center-right bloc. He said Friday that his NCD lawmakers, who are part of the centrist Area Popolare bloc that fields about 75 electors, will probably align with Berlusconi, though he warned that things may change.

Soviet Army

“There’s a change in the majority,” Maurizio Sacconi, Area Popolare chief whip in the Senate, told reporters Friday, according to Ansa. “The PD dressed up a Constitutional Court Judge from the Christian Democrats with the Soviet Army uniform” he said, referring to Renzi’s attempt to unify the left-wing of his party as well as the the more radical SEL behind Mattarella’s name.

Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which counts 129 electors and voted for a different candidate in the previous three rounds, was scheduled to meet at 9 p.m. Friday to define strategy ahead of the fourth ballot.

The presidency of the Italian Republic is largely a ceremonial role, though the head of state in the Quirinale Palace in Rome is the guarantor of the country’s constitution, oversees the armed forces and becomes the key arbiter during political crises.

Giorgio Napolitano, 89, who resigned as head of state Jan. 14 because of his advanced age, dealt with four government changes and two general elections during his unprecedented nine years in office. Renzi praised him as a stout defender of the European Union who confronted difficulties with “intelligence and wisdom.”

Mattarella began his career in national politics in 1983 when he was elected to the national Parliament as a member of the now-defunct Christian Democrats, Italy’s ruling party after World War II.

He is the younger brother of Piersanti Mattarella, a Sicilian regional government president also from Christian Democrats, who was assassinated by the Mafia in Palermo in 1980.

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