Sunday, May 29

Secret ballot begins in Italian presidential election amid COVID-19 pandemic

The first round of voting for Italy’s next president and Sergio Mattarella’s successor began on Monday, with no clear candidate following the reluctant withdrawal of three-term former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The election will be an unprecedented affair as the coronavirus pandemic will have a dramatic impact on how voters, more than a thousand lawmakers across the country, will turn out.

Due to COVID-19, the electoral procedures underwent some changes, including a special drive-through voting area that was set up in the parliament car park for voters who have tested positive or are in quarantine.

The 1,009 parliamentarians and special regional representatives will vote for Mattarella’s successor in a secret ballot that could take several rounds before choosing a candidate. The first three rounds require a two-thirds majority. An absolute majority will suffice if the voting continues until the fourth round.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi, meanwhile, has signaled his willingness to run for office, but party support in the broad coalition of unity against the pandemic is divided by concerns that his change from head of government to head of state trigger early elections.

The contest has intensified after Berlusconi withdrew his controversial candidacy on Saturday, saying he had enough votes to win but the country could not afford political divisions.

The 85-year-old has been undergoing tests at a Milan hospital in recent days, his office confirmed on Sunday.

With his seven-year term, the position of Italy’s head of state is largely ceremonial, but it also requires political acumen and constitutional knowledge to guide Italy through its frequent political crises.

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Political parties held internal meetings over the weekend, but kept the names of the candidates secret, as the vote for Italy’s 13th president will also set the stage for the next political election, with the current legislative mandate expiring in 2023, as well as the perennial political dispute over new electoral laws that are likely to come.

It seemed increasingly likely that the first rounds of votes would be cast blank or with made-up names, while behind-the-scenes bickering continues through the first three rounds when 673 votes are needed to win.

“At this moment, we are leaning toward a blank ballot,” Liberi e Uguali deputy Federico Fornaro said in front of Parliament.

Coraggio Italia deputy Daniela Ruffino said she had some “preferences” for the presidency.

As of Thursday, a candidate can win with an absolute majority of 505 votes.

While no party has officially nominated Draghi as a candidate, Berlusconi and his right-wing allies oppose his candidacy, largely out of concern that new elections will be spawned while the 5-Star Movement is divided.

The Democratic Party would like to see him in office and is reportedly working on a pact with other parties for a replacement prime ministerial candidate that would allow the current government to continue without new elections.

Draghi, a former professor and director of the European Central Bank, was appointed prime minister last year to help guide Italy through the pandemic, helping secure billions in EU funds to relaunch the economy in what was the first epicenter of the pandemic in Europe.

Draghi has said his role is largely complete, but some want him to stay on as head of government to ensure funds are spent properly in a country with a poor track record of negotiating and managing EU funds.

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Italy’s next president will play an important role in acting as a neutral arbiter between the various parties as Italy struggles to emerge from the pandemic, and will work to enact reforms to aid recovery and boost economic growth.

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