ROME — After noxious and chaotic back-room negotiations, Italian lawmakers on Saturday re-elected the country’s current president, Sergio Mattarella , keeping the status quo, avoiding early elections and prolonging Italy’s current period of stability under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who himself had coveted the job.
But the election of Mr. Mattarella, 80 and reluctant to serve again, after six disastrous days of secret votes in which different political interests within the governing coalition failed to rally around a new candidate, revealed the fractious politics and crumbling alliances just beneath the surface of Italy’s national unity government.
Divisive Italian politics is nothing new, but the election was especially closely watched because its outcome had the potential of determining whether Mr. Draghi, widely credited with bringing stability to Italy in a critical time, would stay on the scene or become a casualty of the political chaos.
In a private meeting on Saturday morning, Mr. Draghi, who many considered the no-brainer candidate to fill the seven-year presidential office, personally asked Mr. Mattarella to consider staying on because the political conflagration over the inconclusive ballots had begun to burn institutional figures, like the president of the Senate and the head of the Secret Service, two prominent women who were proposed as candidates only to be rejected and tarnished.
Mr. Draghi returned from the meeting and then called the governing coalition’s party leaders to try to broker a deal, according to an official in Mr. Draghi’s office who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss it publicly.
The choice of Mr. Mattarella increased the likelihood that Mr. Draghi, a former president of the European Central Bank, would continue to lead the unity government until scheduled elections in February 2023.
Having Mr. Draghi’s hand on day-to-day affairs was certain to calm international markets as well as the European Union’s leadership in Brussels, which is counting on Italy to effectively manage hundreds of billions of dollars in pandemic recovery funds and demonstrate the wisdom of the bloc’s experiment in collective debt.
Mr. Draghi’s supporters would have preferred that he be elected president, hoping that his steadying influence, even in the often ceremonial role of the presidency, would provide Italy stability beyond the country’s next scheduled elections, in 2023.
But for them, the re-election of Mr. Mattarella amounts to the second-best option because it freezes the current political situation in place and leaves open the possibility that Mr. Draghi could still someday ascend to the Quirinal Palace, the home of presidents and the past home of popes.
Speculation is rife that Mr. Mattarella may resign early from his second term as president and open the way for Italy’s next Parliament to elect Mr. Draghi at a less politically delicate time. The official in Mr. Draghi’s office said Mr. Draghi and Mr. Mattarella did not discuss anything of the sort on Saturday morning.
Mr. Mattarella “understands that this is a critical time for Italy,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, an expert in the Italian political system at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “And that the status quo needs to be kept.”
Most experts agree that as the elections get closer, the political ambitions and gamesmanship of the opposing political parties in the government will make it increasingly hard for the government to act, to pass new legislation, or even to stay together.
Mr. Mattarella was first elected in 2015 when he was championed by the prime minister at the time, Matteo Renzi, a master tactician of Italian politics who played a role in blocking other candidates this week. Born in Palermo, Sicily, Mr. Mattarella is the younger brother of Piersanti Mattarella, whom the mafia assassinated in 1980 during his term as Sicily’s governor.
A reserved lawyer who taught parliamentary law in Palermo, the once and future Italian president was elected to Parliament in 1983 as a member of the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated postwar Italy until it imploded after a series of bribery scandals in the early 1990s. He served in Parliament until 2008, holding a number of high-level government posts under the Christian Democrats and in later center-left governments. In 2011, he was elected by Parliament to Italy’s Constitutional Court.
As president, the grandfatherly Mr. Mattarella, with his snow-white hair and quiet style, has demonstrated moral authority and presided with a firm hand over a chaotic seven years. The country swung wildly from the left to the right and elected among the most populist and anti-European Parliaments in Europe before transforming once again into an establishment bedrock under Mr. Draghi, whom Mr. Mattarella personally brought in to end a government crisis last year.
After populists scored large victories in the 2018 elections, Mr. Mattarella blocked the formation of a government that he considered unconstitutionally anti-European, prompting leaders of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement to call for his impeachment.
It is a mark of how much Italian politics has moderated around Mr. Draghi that those same leaders today urged their followers to vote for Mr. Mattarella. But the vote also showed the overwhelming personal interest of members of parliament in avoiding early elections likely to cost many of the present and former Five Star members their jobs and pensions.
Mr. Mattarella repeatedly made it clear that he did not want to stay in the job and had moved his things to a new apartment in Rome. Memes swapped among Italian politicians and reporters this week showed Mr. Mattarella answering the phone and pretending he was not home, or tying sheets together to sneak out of a window of the presidential palace.
But the chaotic week revealed how difficult it was for Italy’s parties to agree on anyone else. The country’s center right coalition, which came into the election hoping to flex its muscles, instead left it weak and wounded and warring among themselves.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the nationalist League party who had hoped the election would act as a show of force for the center right and his role as its de facto leader, exited politically bloodied. His proposed candidates, enough to field a soccer team, went nowhere and he ultimately supported Mr. Mattarella’s encore.
Silvio Berlusconi, who had himself hoped to become president before withdrawing his candidacy shortly before voting began, had put a veto on Mr. Draghi becoming president because it could endanger the government. He backed Mr. Mattarella, as did Mr. Renzi and the Democratic Party that he once led. The present leader, Enrico Letta, called the outcome “ideal.”
But the process was anything but. For days, the competing political parties engaged in all sorts of tactics to pursue their narrow interests, gain the upper hand or defend against partisan candidates. Nary a sentence of policy or substance was heard, as the week became a clinic, or a demolition derby, of pure power politics. Lawmakers tactically abstained and floated symbolic candidates used to measure the compactness of their voting blocs. They timed their own voters to make sure they were not writing down names on blank ballots. They publicly offered what they called credible candidates, intending to destroy the chances of those nominees by merely articulating their names.
On Thursday, the threshold for victory went down to 505 votes, an absolute majority, and tensions increased.
On Friday, Mr. Salvini, tried to force a candidacy of a political ally, Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, the president of the Senate, despite threats from liberals and his nominal partners in the national unity coalition that it would prompt the collapse of the government.
Her candidacy came up far short and her own party voted against her. Momentum began to move toward Mr. Mattarella, but on Friday night, desperate politicians, including the embittered former prime minister Giuseppe Conte, whom Mr. Mattarella had replaced with Mr. Draghi, expressed backing for a generic female candidate. The move was roundly interpreted as a last-ditch power play and merely claimed new political casualties.
But on Saturday, all of those gambits seemed to end and the members of the national unity government, including Mr. Conte, decided to keep things exactly how they were, with Mr. Mattarella as president and Mr. Draghi as prime minister. But everything also seemed different. The election had taken a toll.
Mr. Letta, the Democratic Party leader said it revealed “a political system that is blocked.” and that “isn’t working.”
Elisabetta Povoledo and Gaia Pianigiani contributed reporting.