Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano resigns

The Wall Street Journal, Rome – President Giorgio Napolitano, who led Italy through one of its stormiest political periods, resigned Wednesday, opening a phase of political uncertainty that will test the strength of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi ’s young government.

Mr. Napolitano, who turns 90 in June, announced in December that he had decided to end his second mandate ahead of time due to his age and increasing “signs of fatigue,” which made it increasingly difficult for him to fulfill his duties.
“I’m happy to go back home,” he said while greeting the public in front of the presidential palace on Tuesday.

Mr. Napolitano has been a crucial ally as Mr. Renzi pushes institutional and economic changes in a country that suffers from poor competitiveness and is locked in a triple-dip recession, often helping to prod its quarrelsome parties into supporting Mr. Renzi’s plans, including a new electoral law and constitutional overhaul aimed at making the country’s cumbersome legislative process more efficient.

Mr. Napolitano has helped to steer Italian politics since 2011, when the country was almost pushed to the center of the eurozone crisis amid spiraling borrowing costs and prolonged political instability. He spearheaded the creation of two consecutive reform-minded governments, led by Mario Monti and, in 2013, by Enrico Letta. In February 2014, he backed the ascent of Mr. Renzi.

The election of the next president is likely to have a big impact on the future of Mr. Renzi’s government and the outcome of his reformist push.
Under the Italian constitution, the two chambers of Parliament, along with regional representatives, elect the head of state.

An expanded parliamentary session will start to vote on Mr. Napolitano’s successor on Jan. 29. The election will involve more than 1,000 voters from the upper house, the lower house and representatives nominated by regional councils. In the first three votes, a super-majority of two-thirds is needed to elect the new president, while a simple majority suffices after that.

Smooth elections are fairly rare in Italy, and in one-third of cases it takes more than 10 days to strike a compromise on a credible candidate, analysts say.
“We’ll reasonably have the name of the new president by the end of the month,” Mr. Renzi said Wednesday, indicating that he will try to speed up the election process as much as possible.

The Italian premier has repeatedly said he wants his center-left Democratic Party and the other political parties to coalesce around a presidential candidate who is able to attract large support, given his nonpartisan role as guarantor of the Italian constitution.

Mr. Renzi relies on a fragile majority. He has been forced repeatedly to call confidence votes in Parliament to force the passage of legislation. He depends on a pact with his longtime political foe and center-right party leader Silvio Berlusconi to push through electoral and institutional overhauls. The presidential election could test this alliance.

“Renzi comes to the election process numerically strong but politically weakened,” said Wolfango Piccoli, managing director of consulting firm Teneo Intelligence. “A messy outcome would be problematic for [the premier’s] authority within the governing coalition and may destabilize his reform pact.”

Some analysts say that if Mr. Renzi and his coalition partners succeed in electing a suitable candidate in the fourth or fifth round of voting, the premier’s leadership will be reaffirmed and the balance of power in Parliament will remain substantially unchanged. But if the presidential election drags on past the fifth round, with internal defections within Mr. Renzi’s governing coalition, that would spell trouble for the 40-year-old leader.

“Such an outcome would likely mark the beginning of the end for Mr. Renzi’s reform pact with Mr. Berlusconi, his flagship reforms, and the current legislature,” Mr. Piccoli said.

Names of possible candidates have emerged in the Italian press in recent weeks, including former prime ministers Giuliano Amato and Romano Prodi. Mr. Prodi, however, already suffered a failure in the 2013 presidential election due to last-minute defections among Democratic Party voters, making his candidacy unlikely.
Democratic Party veteran and former party secretary Walter Veltroni is also among the possible candidates, along with Anna Finocchiaro, a senior member of Mr. Renzi’s center-left party, who would be the first woman in the role, if elected.

—Liam Moloney contributed to this article.

Giada Zampano
“Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano Resigns”
The Wall Street Journal
January 14, 2015