ROME (Reuters) - One week ago, with his office in the Quirinale Palace already cleared of his books and papers, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said: “They won’t convince me to stay”. In the end they did.
Just over two months before his 88th birthday, Napolitano yielded to the pleas of Italy’s squabbling politicians and agreed to a second term in office to try to end the chaotic stalemate left by February’s deadlocked election.
No Italian president had ever been re-elected and Napolitano may not serve a full seven-year term. He could resign once the impasse is resolved, allowing a new head of state to be elected.
But the fact that it got this far highlights the gravity of the crisis now facing Italy, which was staring into the unknown with parties incapable of forming a government or electing a successor to Napolitano, whose term was due to end on May 15.
Italy, the euro zone’s third-largest economy and a founder member of the Group of Seven rich countries, has been locked in near-constant political and economic crisis for almost two years while its hostile political factions trade insults.
In an interview with the daily La Stampa last Saturday, Napolitano ruled out a second seven-year term, which he called a “non-solution” which would be “bordering on the ridiculous”.
“What is needed now is the courage to make choices, to look forwards, it would be wrong to turn back,” he said.
In the end however, he decided there was no choice after delegations from all the major parties apart from the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement trooped up the hill from parliament to beg him to stay.
Center-left leader Pier Luigi Bersani had already resigned after dissidents in his own ranks sabotaged the two candidates for president he had proposed, exposing ex-Senate speaker Franco Marini and former prime minister Romano Prodi to humiliating defeats in parliament.
Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right People of Freedom (PDL) party had boycotted the vote for Prodi, accusing the center-left of betraying a deal to elect a president acceptable to them and calling a protest outside parliament.
The vote for Napolitano was immediately denounced by Beppe Grillo, the fiery leader of the 5-Star Movement, who called it a “coup d’etat”, and hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament while the vote was going on.
It will now be up to Napolitano to try to calm the fevered atmosphere in Rome and he made a pointed appeal to the parties to assume a “collective sense of responsibility”.
In his statement accepting the appeal for a new mandate, Napolitano said his agreement was not connected with a deal over forming a new government, but unless he can conjure an accord between the parties new elections will be inevitable.
As well as ceremonial functions, the Italian head of state has broad political powers as Napolitano himself demonstrated in late 2011 when he appointed Mario Monti to lead a technocrat administration after the fall of Berlusconi’s last government.
But his repeated calls for unity and a sense of responsibility have made little impact on the bitterly divided parties or on an increasingly sour public mood best illustrated by the runaway success of the 5-Star Movement.
A former communist and member of a student anti-fascist group in World War Two, Napolitano has wide personal popularity in Italy and high regard from foreign leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama.
First elected to parliament in 1953, he has been a politician for most of his life, focusing on European and Atlantic issues and serving as lower house speaker. He was named Life Senator in 2005.
However an institutional career built on seeking consensus and forging agreement has been increasingly out of step with the dysfunctional state of politics that his own re-election has underlined.
Editing by Jason Webb