Political parties beg Italy’s 80-year-old president to stay

Rome (AP) — After days of stalemate, Italian party leaders on Saturday urged 80-year-old President Sergio Mattarella to change his mind and stay on for a second seven-year term amids concern protracted political squabbling would erode the nation’s credibility.

Mattarella’s term ends Feb. 3. In the run-up to the presidential election this week, Mattarella repeatedly said he doesn’t want another stint. He even rented an apartment in Rome to prepare for his move from the presidential palace atop the Quirinal Hill.

But after a seventh round of balloting in six days in Parliament by lawmakers and special regional representatives failed to yield any consensus on a presidential candidate, party whips and regional governors visited Mattarella at the presidential palace to solicit his willingness ahead of what could the decisive vote Saturday evening.

Rai state TV said Premier Mario Draghi, a non-partisan former chief of the European Central Bank who is leading a pandemic unity government, telephoned party leaders to encourage the lobbying. Draghi had previously indicted he would be willing to move into the president’s role, but some party leaders featured that would prompt an early election.

Mattarella’s office didn’t immediately comment on the situation.

But Democratic Party chief Enrico Letta, whose Senate whip was among the lawmakers meeting Saturday with Mattarella, indicated that Italy’s head of state had agreed to serve again if elected.

Mattarella’s willingness “is a choice of generosity toward the country,″ Letta told a news conference minutes before Saturday’s second round of voting began.

“You don’t change a winning team,″ former Premier Matteo Renzi told reporters about the current leadership with Draghi, a reassuring figure to financial markets, and Mattarella as president.

Voting began late Saturday afternoon, with the count of the handwritten secret ballots expected several hours later.

Through Saturday morning, days of balloting by 1,009 eligible lawmakers and special regional delegates failed to give any one candidate the minimum 505 votes needed for victory.

A chorus of Italian politicians called for Mattarella to reconsider.

Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who heads the center-right Forza Italia party he founded, said that unity “today can only be found around the figure of President Sergio Mattarella, of whom we know we’re asking a great sacrifice.”

Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who heads a small left-wing party, told reporters that Mattarella’s re-election would be crucial for “a context of stability for Italy.”

The head of the populist 5-Star Movement, Parliament’s largest force, former Premier Giuseppe Conte, also joined in the pressing. “Mattarella is the guarantor of everybody, impartial, authoritative,″ he told reporters.

Until 2013, no president had served a second term. Then, a similar political stalemate among the members of Parliament and regional delegates in several rounds of balloting ended when Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist leader, agreed to accept a second mandate. Napolitano resigned in 2015, when he was nearly 90, clearing the way for the election that made Mattarella head of state.

In Saturday’s first round of voting, Mattarella garnered 387 votes, 51 more than he received in Friday evening’s vote, where momentum for a second mandate started gaining traction.