Italy’s fragile national unity government came under severe strain on Friday as its right-wing members tried to push for their own candidate as the country’s next president, over the objections of leftist parties who want the post to go to prime minister Mario Draghi.
Matteo Salvini, leader of the rightwing League, called on right-wing parties to throw their support behind Senate president Elisabetta Casellati, a member of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.
Salvini said Casellati, a lawyer known for her conservative Catholic views including firm opposition to abortion and IVF, was “the best possible” candidate for president after incumbent Sergio Mattarella, who has repeatedly stressed his unwillingness to serve a second term.
Salvini’s endorsement of Casellati — who leftist parties have openly rejected — came as more than 1,000 lawmakers and other representatives cast secret ballots in a complex presidential election process.
The Democratic party, the Five Star movement, and the small LEU — which together have 407 of the electors choosing the next president — issued a joint statement calling Salvini’s “unilateral nomination . . . a serious mistake”.
Friday’s morning round of voting was the fifth since the election process began on Monday. Casellati won 382 votes, short of the 505 needed for victory. More than 406 electors abstained. A second round of voting is scheduled for Friday evening, with two more on Saturday if no winner emerges.
Analysts said the result highlighted the deep internal divisions within the right and made it unlikely that Casellati could be propelled to victory.
Wolfango Piccoli, of political risk advisory group Teneo, said Salvini’s push for Casellati in defiance of his coalition partners could have spelt the end of Draghi’s government.
If Italy’s president was elected in “such a partisan way, at that point, the ruling coalition is over”, Piccoli told the Financial Times. “There is no way Draghi can pretend everything is fine and move on . . . It’s game over for the government.”
Draghi, a former European Central Bank president, was tapped as prime minister a year ago to lead Italy through a serious economic and health crisis.
Since then, his national unity government has endorsed an ambitious reform programme, backed by €200bn in funding, to reboot the chronically underperforming economy.
Many Italians believe Draghi’s career in public service and strong international reputation makes him a strong candidate to serve as president, a position from which he could exercise some oversight of Italy’s notoriously fractious politics for the next seven years.
But political parties have not swung behind his election, partly because they are wary of sparking early elections, if they cannot agree a candidate to succeed Draghi as prime minister.
In the first rounds parties cast blank ballots while attempting to bridge their differences but tensions have mounted as they failed to reach an agreement.
Enrico Letta, the Democratic party’s secretary-general, who wants Draghi as president, warned via Twitter this week that any push for a presidential candidate without the consensus of other government allies “would represent the most direct way to blow everything up”.
Piccoli said Salvini’s open support for Casellati as president was a “risky bet” that had highlighted his own political weakness given how far short of victory she had fallen, with many rightwing lawmakers refusing to back her candidacy.