Why Italy’s Next President Must Be A Woman

There is a solution to the current political conundrum: not to elect a member of a political party altogether and choose Italy’s first female President.

Marta Cartabia candidate Italy President
Italy’s Minister of Justice, Marta Cartabia. Photo: Max Allegritti, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sergio Mattarella is finishing his time as Italy’s President, and with the end of his 7-year term, it will start a period of intense horse-trading between the country’s political forces to elect the next President of the Republic.

Unlike other republican systems, Italy’s President plays a largely ceremonial role and, differently to France and other European countries, the Head of State is not elected by universal suffrage, but rather indirectly by MPs and regional representatives. Moreover, the presidential terms are not synchronized with the parliamentary cycle, which means the election occurs in the midst of a parliamentary term. The presidential electoral process has been designed to facilitate a consensus-based decision, requiring the agreement of a two-thirds super-majority of great electors (senators, deputies and regional representatives) for a candidate to be elected. If three attempts at electing a president with a super-majority fail to provide a winner, a simple majority suffices. However, this does not constitute very good optics.

In more normal times, political forces try to take it upon themselves to elect a politically irreproachable candidate with a wide majority, to avoid acrimonious infighting among themselves, and to ensure that the elected presidents represent what they were meant to represent: the unity of the Italian people and State — a role broadly inherited from Italy’s dismantled monarchy. The election of the president, though, has not always been smooth in recent years: in 2013, six ballots were needed only to re-elect Giorgio Napolitano for a short mandate, against the wishes of the insurgent Five Star Movement and only after the candidacy of the former European Commissioner Romano Prodi was torpedoed. Many other elections have been less controversial, and often — but not always — some of the candidates best-placed for the role presided as speakers of the chamber or Senate due to these roles’ perceived ‘above-the-fray’ nature.

However, in this quest for unity and representation, one section of the Italian population has yet to be represented by the presidential office, that is women. Despite high-profiles such as Emma Bonino making it to the ballot and winning votes, few have been proposed as an official candidate of any main parties, and none have ever been discussed as potential contenders. This may reflect the Italian political system, which has historically been even more male-dominated than other Western European countries, with consistently lower representation in Parliament and cabinet than other European peers.

Indeed, there has been a dearth of female representation at the highest echelons of Italian political life. Ironically, given some of her party’s traditionalist and national conservative inclinations, it was not until Giorgia Meloni that there has been a major party leader that happened to be a woman. This may be detrimental to the aspirations of young Italian women and girls who may find it harder to picture themselves in high-profile public office roles in their own country, such as the presidency. It is precisely for this reason, the historical under-representation of Italian women in politics and other leadership positions, along with a less than stellar record in key gender equality metrics ranging from employment attainment to domestic violence, that the time has come to choose a female president.

A voice that has worked hard to address these deep-seated inequities in Italian society and fought to ensure improved representation slowly chipping away at the wall of patriarchy in Italy, was Laura Boldrini, who presided over the Chamber of Deputies from 2013 to 2018. Not only has she excellent institutional credentials to qualify as President of the Republic, but she has also worked for long as a UN official, becoming an advocate for improving the treatment of refugees. Moreover, during her time in office, she actively took a progressive tack within the boundaries of her role, to promote improved representation for women in public office, while also trying to make a male-dominated institution more accommodating of women MPs and staff.

One may argue that individuals with deep-seated patriarchal attitudes will not change their minds over this, and that electing a woman to the presidency may not be more beneficial than placing a plaster on an amputated arm – the breaking of such a glass ceiling may have a subconscious impact on the Italian mind. For many, this would make no difference — in fact, it may only harden their misogynist views. On the other hand, this may have an impact on the younger generation who will be able to witness a Head of State that is not a man — a privilege that was denied to everyone else given that, out of 12 Presidents of the Republic, all were men, and before that there had been four kings.

Unfortunately, Laura Boldrini is persona non-grata to much of the Italian public, having become a bete noire of the Italian right, and being vilified on a daily basis by right-wing tabloids and pundits or Facebook comment sections. Indeed, she has become a target of hate speech and has been characterized as the typical bien-pensant figure that the Italian right loves to hate. She is too vocal about gender issues, fighting inequality, and helping the downtrodden about social justice overall. In some sections of the Italian public, the above is a blot on a person’s track record far worse than being sentenced for corruption, soliciting prostitution for minors, or colluding with the criminal underground. However, Boldrini’s candidacy would never be supported by the current Parliament, which is skewed to the right — so although being extremely qualified for the job, she would not meet the unity threshold that the office seeks to achieve given the current composition of Parliament.

The upcoming president will have to be one that manages to secure substantial support from the government forces of the right, including the League and Forza Italia, who also happen to be in a coalition with Meloni’s Brothers of Italy. This means that it will be challenging to identify a consensus candidate from the center-left, making it also hard for former minister of defense Roberta Pinotti to be elected, even though she has gained the right credentials for the role and has built strong relations with the Italian institutional apparatus. More likely than not, the right would not want to miss an opportunity to choose its own president. The problem, however, is that none of the leading contenders from the right happens to be a woman. Instead, the names circulating include former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who might see the presidency as the crowning glory of his political career.

Therefore, a few potential female candidates from the right could make the cut, including the current leader of the Senate, Maria Elisabetta Casellati, and the former mayor of Milan, Letizia Moratti. As the leader of the Senate, the first is qualified to meet one of the unofficial requirements for being president in Italy. Also, she possesses solid conservative credentials, having been opposed to key measures related to stem cell research during the second Berlusconi government. The fact that she has also been on board with some of the League’s central policies, such as the flat tax, greater autonomy for the regions, a popular proposition among segments of the electorate of the North, should make her a strong candidate for much of the right. She also has the advantage of being on the moderate end of the center-right coalition, being a member of Forza Italia as opposed to the League, and a stalwart pro-European politician not participating in any of the rest of the Italian right’s anti-EU adventurism. This could put her in good stead in gaining the support of centrist forces and the Democratic Party. However, it is not sure whether this might be the same for the lawmakers of the Five Star Movement, who have yet to make their minds up about anything. After her stint as mayor of Milan, instead, Letizia Moratti has gained renewed visibility helping coordinate Lombardy’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this not seems to suffice.

There is a solution to the partisan conundrum, as it is possible to skip having to elect a member of a political party altogether and choose a high-civil servant to fulfil this role. This is not out of the ordinary in Italy, with the former president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi having been president of the Bank of Italy. In this regard, there would be a whole raft of talented women candidates that could be chosen. A potential solution would be electing Marta Cartabia, the current Minister of Justice and a former president of Italy’s supreme court. She has been given the unenviable task of reforming the Italian justice system and speeding up the time it takes to make any judicial decision in Italy, a key measure needed to ensure that Italy becomes a more competitive destination for investors.

She could be considered a safe pair of hands given her strong knowledge of the Italian constitution and government system deriving from her experience as a minister chosen under Draghi to deliver on some of the thorniest political dossiers. Indeed, she could be seen as the continuation candidate, ensuring that the present political consensus achieved with the Draghi government persists into the presidency. Moreover, having her elected would put the question of having Draghi elected to the presidency to rest, keeping him put firmly as Prime Minister, which is the preferred solution of many in both the government and the Parliament. Blocking the path to the presidency to Mario Draghi could have ancillary benefits to political forces in Italy, making it possible to consider keeping him as a potential care-take Prime Minister even after the 2023 election for a limited period to keep steering Italy in the post-pandemic world, but not beyond summer 2024. Indeed, becoming President of the European Commission might be a more impactful way to end his career.

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