Why Renzi made a sub-optimal choice for the Italian presidency
Joseph LaPalombara and Stanton Burnett 5 February 2015

Amato’s qualifications appear self-evident.  His previous cabinet assignments, in delicate and difficult ministries (e.g., Interior, Institutional Reform, Treasury) quickly won him the informal title of “Dottor Sottile.” In one of Amato’s two short terms as prime minister, he brought about the first drastic cut in Italy’s soaring public deficit. Without this step, it is arguable that Italy would not have become a member of the so-called Eurozone.  Indeed, Giuliano Amato is widely admired within the European Union, for which he was once named as a vice-president of the Convention on the Future of Europe. Amato’s distinction as a teacher and scholar of constitutional law led outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano to name him to the Italian Constitutional Court, the highest in the land.

Notwithstanding all of this and more, in spite of an apparent agreement Renzi is said to have reached with Silvio Berlusconi in Amato’s favor, Renzi engineered a surprising maneuver, widely judged, perhaps world-wide, as a sub-optimal outcome.

Two major considerations may have governed the prime minister’s decision, at least one of which speaks negatively regarding his political acumen and leadership. On the positive side, Matteo Renzi may have decided that, despite his unquestioned leadership of his own Democratic Party (PD), the party’s left wing, led by Pier Luigi Bersani and consisting largely of former Communists, would actually have voted against Amato, as opposed to simply abstaining or voting blank ballots.

Renzi is well aware of the mischief which the so-called “franchi tiratori” can create in secret balloting. He himself was publicly accused, including by members of his own party, as the leader of the 105 PD “snipers” who recently buried the presidential ambitions of Romano Prodi. Renzi’s choice of Sergio Mattarella, historically identified with the left wing of the old Christian Democratic Party, assured him that his own party would vote as a solid bloc for the person he named, which it did.

He must also have believed, as now appears evident, that his “betrayal” of a previous agreement (regarding Amato) with Silvio Berlusconi would not cause a deep rift with the latter, particularly with regard to the reform of the electoral law, and of the Italian Senate. The fact that Sergio Mattarella personally telephoned Berlusconi, who is a convicted felon, still serving a sentence (i.e. to render public service), inviting him to attend his inauguration ceremony at the Quirinale testifies, if not to Renzi’s political acumen, to his Machiavellian tactical sense.

The less admirable motivation for Matteo Renzi’s change of heart regarding Amato is the prime minister’s sense that, despite his own self image as a skilled and effective political leader, he could not tolerate as President of the Republic a person as deeply experienced politically, and as widely respected at home and abroad as is “Il Dottor Sottile.”

This uncertainty about whose shadow is thrown over whom dramatizes the long-range fact that a comfortable “fit” of the President of the Republic into the Italian political culture has not yet gelled, except to prove, with some frequency, that the Constitution’s diminishing of the role may not stick. After some initial turmoil, post-war France, Germany and Spain have all settled into an agreed relationship between the chief of state and the head of government. England of course had found its groove ages ago. But in Italy that relationship still wobbles with uncertainty, especially when the President of the Republic is politically potent (with both dignity and controversy in the cases of Cossiga and Napolitano), or a technician sought to help pull the country back from economic abyss (Ciampi), or a disgrace (Leone), or an historical figure, either weary (Saragat) or not weary enough (Pertini).

It may still take a couple of decades of a bland presidency matched with strong leadership in Palazzo Chigi for a “normal” institutional stasis to materialize.  But this would require, among other things, a diminishing of the role played by Quirinale consultations in every governmental crisis. For the time being, the process just concluded in Rome retains its importance, and the by-passing of Giuliano Amato puts a burden of responsibility on Renzi’s shoulders, a suggestion that short-run politics may have trumped a long-term national interest.

We mean by this that, precisely because of his demonstrated political experience and skill, Matteo Renzi would have found in Amato a remarkable ally. Over many decades, Giuliano Amato has demonstrated the highest degree of skill in the exercise of his public responsibilities, including knowing when it is not himself, but someone else in a political leadership role, who should have the limelight.

Particularly at this time in Italy’s history, the country is in need of the best available leaders, with demonstrated knowledge as to how to overcome not just problems of rampant unemployment and zero economic growth, but also of dangerous populism, which such conditions create. In passing over Giuliano Amato, Matteo Renzi may have denied himself and Italy as well an usually gifted person who might help show the way.