[Editor’s note: This story is being updated.]
Italian political life has a seemingly endless capacity to snatch chaos from the jaws of apparent stability, and it’s on display once again in late May. This time, however, after a long period of basic quiescence, the Catholic Church is once again among the forces shaping the national debate.
The current crisis was triggered on Saturday, when Italian President Sergio Mattarella refused to accept a proposed new government formed by an alliance between the country’s two largest populist forces, the left-leaning Five Star Movement and the right-wing, anti-immigrant Lega.
Mattarella, whose political background is on the left but who’s been an independent since 2008, was willing to go along with a great deal, but he balked at the nomination of economist Paolo Savona as the Minister of the Economy.
Savona is known for his strong anti-European Union views. Mattarella took the position that putting Italy’s commitment to the EU at risk, which he insisted Savona would have done despite assurances from party leaders, would violate the national constitution. (The constitution contains measures requiring compliance with European Union law.)
In general, the Italian president is an elder statesman who serves as the national conscience, but he has little real political power – except right now, when the constitution assigns him the role of approving a new government before it can seek a parliamentary majority.
For now, Mattarella has asked economist Carlo Cottarelli, a former director of the International Monetary Fund, to try to put together a government that could provide stability until new elections can be held to attempt, again, to produce a clear winner. Accepting the mandate on Monday, Cottarelli said that if he succeeds in gaining support in parliament, he’ll govern long enough to adopt a budget law and then prepare the way for new elections in early 2019; otherwise, his government will step down immediately and perform only basic administration until elections after August.
In either case, Cottarelli vowed that he won’t run for office himself, and said all members of the interim government would do the same.
Given that Italy’s center-right Forza Italia and Fratellia d’Italia parties already have vowed not to support Cottarelli, while the leader of the Five Star Movement, Luigi Di Maio, has floated impeachment for Mattarella, the stage appears set for early elections.
In the meantime, Italy’s uncertain future is taking an economic toll. What Italians call the “spread,” meaning the gap between the yield of Italian bonds and those of benchmark Germany, first shot up, then came back down after Cottarelli’s reassuring comments in accepting his mandate, and then shot up again when it became clear Cottarelli is unlikely to find a parliamentary majority. The spread ended the day as high as it’s been since the end of 2013.
Since elections on March 4, through the ups and downs of negotiations between the Lega and the Five Star Movement, both the Vatican and the powerful Episcopal Conference of Italy (CEI) largely remained silent, suggesting to many a dawning period of withdrawal by the Church from political life.
Yet during a recent plenary meeting of the Italian bishops, Cardinal Gualtiero Bassetti of Perugia, CEI’s president, vowed that the bishops would return to their traditional role of being a “critical conscience.” Most observers took it as a green light from Bassetti, and thus indirectly from Pope Francis, for the bishops to get back in the game.
Over the weekend, Bishop Nunzio Galantino, the secretary of CEI and arguably the Italian prelate closest to Francis, did just that, coming out strongly in favor of Mattarella both before and after his decision to block the proposed government.
On Saturday, before Mattarella had summoned Giuseppe Conte, the candidate picked by the Lega and Five Star Movement to act as Prime Minister, Galantino took to Italian television to criticize the anti-EU stance of the proposed government.
“When you lose the desire to talk rationally about what’s necessary in Europe today, and just consider the whole thing as something to be tossed out, you risk putting Italy in a situation from which it would be difficult to recover,” Galantino said.
At the same moment, Marco Tarquinio, editor of CEI’s widely read daily newspaper Avvenire, published a front-page editorial underscoring Mattarella’s prerogative to accept or reject a proposed government.
“President Matterella is acting like a referee, with wisdom and good judgment, interested only in the common good and the proper function of the extremely serious ‘game’ of politics,” Tarquinio wrote.
Some Italian observers believe the seemingly coordinated show of support may have helped embolden the 76-year-old president to take the fairly bold step of shooting down a chance at a government, after 84 days of a political vacuum.
After the veto was announced, Galantino was equally warm to Mattarella.
In an interview with the news agency Sir, Galantino confirmed his “closeness” to the Italian president, saying he’s “accompanying him with prayer.”
“Moments of tension can’t be overcome by intensifying them, but finding paths forward that can’t be outside the constitution,” Galantino said, indirectly brushing off calls for Mattarella’s impeachment, and perhaps implying he agrees that Savona would have been a bridge too far.
In the perennially “Alice in Wonderland” scenario of Italian politics, few things seem certain now. However, it would at least appear that whatever happens, the Church no longer seems content to stand on the sidelines.