Italian lawmakers over the weekend took the unprecedented step of re-electing their governing president, a move that reflects the desperately fractured state of politics in the country two months after inconclusive parliamentary elections.
Giorgio Napolitano, 87 and going on 88, easily reached the simple majority needed for election on Saturday, winning 738 votes out of 1,007. However, the final decisive vote followed three days of balloting, as the various parties squabbled over who would be capable of choosing a prime minister who could survive a confidence vote and bring enough of them together to form a government.
While there is no prohibition on serving two terms as president, tradition holds that the head of state steps down after the first term. Napolitano had repeatedly said he would decline a second nomination because of his age. If he is able to serve for the full length, he will be nearly 95 when his term runs out. Citing a sense of responsibility to the nation, though, he ultimately accepted the job.
"We must all look, as I tried to do in these hours, at the difficult situation of the country, at the problems of Italy and Italians, and the international image and role of our nation," Napolitano said in a brief statement after the vote.
Ultimately it was Pier Luigi Bersani of the center-left Democratic Party, the centrist caretaker Prime Minister Mario Monti and the conservative former leader Silvio Berlusconi who rallied their support behind Napolitano. Opposition came from the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, led by comedian-turned-populist politician Beppe Grillo. He rejected Napolitano as a symbol of the old guard of corrupt politics, and called his re-election "a cunning little institutional coup."
German media commentators cautiously welcomed Napolitano's re-election as a lone symbol of stability and unity in an otherwise chaotic political situation. But they also warned that his election alone does not solve Italy's crisis, and that whatever coalition government emerges from the Napolitano presidency -- or whatever new parliament takes shape should Napolitano call new elections -- is unlikely to be ideal.
The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:
"On the one hand, Italy's president has quite a bit of discretionary decision-making power in times of government crises. On the other hand, Napolitano could also demand that all parties support his vision for the future of Italian politics in exchange for his willingness to take a second term. That means that once again, like under Prime Minister Mario Monti, a broad coalition of the traditional parties have to produce a government together. But above all, it means that this time the reform of electoral laws, the constitution and the economy can no longer be put off as it was in the past two years."
The conservative Die Welt writes:
"Grillo's success is the flip-side of the frenzied political stalemate in Italy, for which a legion of pompous politicians is responsible. Grillo says 'those' politicians have to be sent home. In Italy's case, one unfortunately has to say that the accusation is not all that unjustified. Giorgio Napolitano is now back at the helm. Maybe he'll keep trying to find a personality who could be capable of circumventing the parties and forming a government that is more than illusory."
"But maybe Napolitano, the first president of the republic with a second term, will exercise his right to call new elections. That would be the better solution -- even if it's not parties, but the ruins of parties that compete in the vote. The youthful old man Giorgio Napolitano bears the responsibility of preventing Italy from becoming a failing state. That cannot be achieved with cunning alone."
The center-left Berliner Zeitung writes:
"Italian politics have declared bankruptcy. Aging politician Napolitano has to give up his well-earned retirement and become the first president in the history of the country to take a second term -- an 87-year-old in the role of the last remaining savior from chaos. Yet several days earlier, he himself warned that his re-election would not be a solution."
"Napolitano's election signaled a turning point. Change can no longer be the catchphrase. Presumably his second term will mean the return of an unspoken grand coalition with Berlusconi -- an extreme breach of trust that might result in the breakup of the left."
"According to opinion polls, new elections would give a significant advance to Berlusconi. And Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement continues to gain momentum. Two populists could soon be the main figures in Italian politics. It's a prospect one would prefer not to have to imagine."
The left-wing Die Tageszeitung writes:
"Napolitano certainly enjoys the highest respect abroad and has the highest level of popularity in Italy. But even though he himself comes from the left, the victory is nothing less than a Waterloo for them, primarily for the Democratic Party (PD) under Pier Luigi Bersani. Now a man who is nearly 88 years old is expected to continue as head of state, because the left is incapable of pushing their own new candidate through parliament -- despite their strength in numbers."
"Countless cliques, bound together mainly by mutual hatred, and two irreconcilable approaches have now driven the PD into the abyss. Given the success of Beppe Grillo's Five Star Movement, the PD had a choice. It could either form a large coalition with Silvio Berlusconi (and his People of Freedom party), or seek a compromise with Grillo. ... (Napolitano) is a known supporter of the grand coalition between the left and right, which will now come to pass in Italy. And once again, the victor is Berlusconi. Meanwhile, the PD lies in ruins, at risk of being divided."