Sergio Mattarella, sworn in on Tuesday as Italy’s 12th president, is known as a quiet and modest man who spends his free time with his family, prefers books to the limelight, and goes to church every Sunday.
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The new 74-year-old president, a father of three who was widowed two years ago, is also known as a jurist of integrity who went into politics after his brother was assassinated by Cosa Nostra operatives in Palermo, where he was born. He is also remembered for having resigned from his position as a government minister in 1990, to protest the Mammi Act that liberalized the media sector in Italy and whose passage was seen as a special favor to Silvio Berlusconi, then a prominent businessman.
At the swearing-in ceremony, the Mattarella declared that he would serve as an impartial arbiter in Italian politics, and urged his fellow citizens to assist him in the difficult and risky process of uniting the country. He described Italians' economic plight as "a long crisis [that] has caused damage and created marginalization," and stressed the urgency of passing economic and legal reforms, and instituting measures that will help cure societal ills.
Moreover, the new leader cited the existential dangers posed by international terrorism, and declared, "Global responses are needed for global threats. Such grave threats cannot be fought by nation-states closing themselves up inside forts." He added that he was "horrified" by recent atrocities including the decapitations of hostages by the Islamic State, or ISIS, as well as the massacres of innocent people in Africa and the Middle East, and in Paris. In this context, he mentioned the name of Stefano Gaj Taché, a two-year-old who was killed in a terror attack in 1982 at Rome's Great Synagogue.
It is no accident that a few days ago, after Mattarella was elected president in the Chamber of Deputies, the first place he chose to visit was the memorial site in Rome of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre, in which German occupation forces murdered 335 Italians in reprisal for an attack by partisans.
“The alliance among the nations succeeded in defeating Nazi, racist and anti-Semitic hatred,” he said at the time, adding, “Similar unity in Europe and the world will succeed in defeating those who wish to drag us into a new period of terrorism.”
The election of Mattarella – who comes from the Christian Democracy party of Aldo Moro and Giulio Andreotti, and who, until becoming president, served as a judge in the Constitutional Court – was noted with great satisfaction in the media, among the public and in most political circles, except for the separatist Lega Nord (North League) and Berlusconi’s party, Forza Italia.
Mattarella’s victory may be credited not only to his personality and excellent reputation, but also to the political skill of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who pulled out of his hat the ultimate candidate with whom nobody could find fault. By doing so he not only brought a worthy person into the president’s residence, but also unified the ranks in his conflict-ridden party, strengthened his coalition with the center-right, and increased his own status as prime minister. Commentators called it a “brilliant chess move.”
The battle over electing the president began a month ago after outgoing President Giorgio Napolitano, 89, announced his intention to retire before the conclusion of his term. Napolitano’s announcement posed a problem to the 40-year-old prime minister, who had to find a figure who could fill the shoes of one of Italy’s most beloved and popular presidents, and who could wield the same moral authority as his predecessor.
At the same time, Renzi had to maneuver so as not to destroy the agreements to carry out the constitutional and economic reforms that he had reached with former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who still has an influence in Italian politics despite his conviction for tax fraud. Although Renzi knew that mentioning Mattarella’s name would be like a red flag to Berlusconi, he decided to push for Mattarella’s election with the support of his allies from the new center-right and the radical left. Angry over that choice, Berlusconi announced the end of the agreements between Renzi and FI, his party — agreements that were vital to the government effort to carry out the reforms. But Renzi is not worried. “Now we will go on turbo to carry out the reforms, with or without Forza Italia,” he said defiantly on Monday.
In the meantime, Berlusconi, who was invited to attend the swearing-in ceremony of the candidate he opposed, will have to settle for the consolation prize that he received on Monday: Forty-five days were deducted from the sentence meted out to him on his conviction in the Mediaset trial.
Beginning on March 8, he will be released from the community-service work that he performed over the past year in a nursing home for patients with Alzheimer’s disease, and his travel restrictions will be lifted. But according to the law, he is barred from re-entering political life until 2019.