The election of a new Italian president began on Monday afternoon – in anticipation of a lengthy voting process and initially without a favourite.

Eligible to vote are 1009 “grandi elettori” from both chambers of Parliament and from the representative bodies of the 20 regions.  

Matthias Rub

Political correspondent for Italy, the Vatican, Albania and Malta based in Rome.

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Neither the coalition of center-left parties nor the right-wing camp had been able to agree on a candidate before the elections began. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi withdrew his candidacy on Saturday. The 85-year-old chairman and founder of the Christian Democratic party Forza Italia had already been admitted to a Milan hospital on Thursday for routine examinations, as was announced on Sunday.

In the first three ballots, a two-thirds majority of 673 votes is required; from the fourth ballot onwards, an absolute majority of 505 votes is sufficient.

Due to the pandemic measures and the complicated process of the secret ballot, only one ballot is possible per day.

A decision is not expected before the fourth ballot on Thursday.

The first ballot, which began at 3 p.m., was expected to last up to six hours. 

Coalition partners hand in blank ballot papers

As announced during the vote for the first ballot, the electors of the Social Democrats and the left-wing populist Five Star Movement, the right-wing national Lega and Forza Italia as well as other small parties in the governing coalition under Prime Minister Mario Draghi cast blank ballots.

The abstentions of all major coalition parties should be seen as a sign of good will and willingness to later support a common candidate from the fourth ballot, it said.

The opposition party "Brothers of Italy" also handed in blank white ballot papers.

The left-wing parties Azione and Mehr Europa voted for the incumbent justice minister, Marta Cartabia.

In the plenary hall of the House of Representatives, only 50 voters are allowed to write a name in alphabetical order in a secret ballot in a booth by hand on the white ballot paper or throw it into the ballot box without filling it out. Voters who have been tested infected and are in quarantine can cast their votes in a kind of drive-in polling station in the courtyard of the House of Representatives, where tents have been specially set up. An exceptional decree allows the infected representatives to leave their home isolation for the duration of the election process.

Incumbent Sergio Mattarella will leave office on February 3 after his seven-year mandate expires. On the first day of the election, 74-year-old Prime Minister Draghi was given good prospects of being elected as his successor. Another likely candidate is former Parliament Speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini, a former Christian Democrat who long supported Berlusconi but later sided with the center-left.

On the part of the Social Democrats and the Five Star Movement, Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Catholic lay community Sant'Egidio, was mentioned. The incumbent Senate President Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati and the former Mayor of Milan Letzia Moratti (both Forza Italia) are considered possible right-wing candidates. Former Prime Minister Giuliano Amato and former Minister Gianni Letta are also mentioned. 

Should Draghi be elected president, the future of the de facto all-party coalition he has led since February is in jeopardy.

The parties in the center-left camp want the coalition to continue until the end of the legislative period in March 2023. The right-wing camp is warning of the coalition government falling apart and of new elections being held if Draghi were to rise from the position of head of state to head of state.

It is considered difficult to find a successor to Draghi as prime minister of his political stature and comparable international standing.