Italy turns to Mr. Napolitano, again

Italy could do worse than re-elect Mr. Giorgio Napolitano to a second term as the country’s president. Unfortunately a second term for the incumbent is yet more proof that Italy’s politics remains dysfunctional and incapable of change.

All that the country’s politicians can agree on is the continuation of the status quo. Italy has bought itself time, but nothing more.

About a week ago, Mr. Napolitano repeated earlier declarations that he could not be persuaded to take a second term, calling such a prospect “ridiculous.” He had even emptied his office in anticipation of his retirement.

The failure of politicians to agree on a successor after five rounds of voting — and the virtual implosion of the center-left party that claimed the most votes in February’s parliamentary elections — forced Mr. Napolitano’s hand.

For two months Italy has endured internecine squabbles among its political leaders. Their failure to agree on a government ensured that deadlock would continue. While the president’s post is largely ceremonial, the president has a crucial role: He decides who can form a government and whether Parliament should be dissolved. But the president cannot perform either function two months before the end of his term, in this case May 15. The failure to elect a successor could have created real gridlock with no president in office to select a prime minister.

Now Mr. Napolitano, who turns 88 in two months, will have to draw on all the wiles, wisdom and experience accumulated in his long political career to break the deadlock. His first choice is a government preferably with a sufficiently broad base so that it can actually govern.

Unfortunately the main parties in Italy, broadly categorized as center left, center right and an anti-establishment group called the 5 Star Movement, have refused to form a coalition.

At his inauguration ceremony Monday evening, Mr. Napolitano said he will make efforts so that a grand coalition government will be formed within days. He also criticized Italian politicians for their irresponsible behavior: “We can no longer refuse the duty of dialogue. To find a possible solution, we require quick and clear decisions on the urgently needed reforms we need to survive and improve Italian democracy and Italian society.”

The main center-left party, the Democratic Party (PD), garnered the most votes in the February ballot — still only a plurality — but most of its members have refused to join with the leading center-right party, led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, in a coalition government.

In a bitter irony, victory has exposed the fragility of the PD. It has practically self-destructed since the vote, with party rebels voting against two of its own candidates to succeed Mr. Napolitano. Unable to forge a governing coalition or even stick together to elect a president, party leader Mr. Pier Luigi Bersani announced that he would step down after Mr. Napolitano was re-elected — this after PD president Ms. Rosy Bindi quit her post because she didn’t want to take responsibility for the party’s “poor showing” in recent weeks.

Mr. Napolitano’s next option is to call another election, a step he could not take in the last two months of his previous term. That mere threat may be enough to push many of the PD holdouts to agree to a deal with Mr. Berlusconi.

Italian voters increasingly express weariness with the established parties, and the fumblings of the last two months has only allowed their disgust to grow. A second vote may produce even more defections.

The beneficiary of the established parties’ incompetence has been the 5-Star Movement and its leader, Mr. Beppe Grillo, a comedian who has channeled public anger. Unfortunately for Italy, Mr. Grillo remains a showman rather than a politician.

After Mr. Napolitano was re-elected, Mr. Grillo denounced the outcome as a “coup d’etat,” and called on millions of Italians to join him in protests outside Parliament. While only hundreds showed up, the language disturbed many, who claimed it was reminiscent of that of Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator who rose to power in 1922 and took Italy to war.

Mr. Grillo and his movement have risen from nowhere to become the third-largest party in Italy in less than four years. They have refused to make deals with either the PD or Mr. Berlusconi, and the group’s leverage appears to be increasing every day as the stasis continues.

Unfortunately, turning a protest movement into a party capable of actually governing — in other words, going beyond saying “no” to producing outcomes — has proven difficult.

The Italian public has much to complain about. The third-largest economy in Europe is struggling with decades of immobility and irresponsibility. The economy shrunk 2.4 percent last year, and the government forecasts an additional contraction of 1.3 percent in 2013, a figure worse than originally anticipated.

The official jobless rate is just under 12 percent, but youth unemployment tops 38 percent. The vice governor of the Central Bank reckons that the country has gone through two recessions in the past five years at a cost of 600,000 jobs and seven percentage points of GDP.

Yet, the politicians continue to dither. Mr. Napolitano’s re-election may alter the calculus of the holdouts in Parliament, forcing them to swallow a grand coalition or face the wrath of voters again at the polls.

Mr. Napolitano is betting on the former. The smart money is on him resigning after a new government formed and gets back down to business. Unfortunately, Italy’s political class has demonstrated an amazing capacity to disappoint. Mr. Napolitano may be in office longer than he anticipates.