The first 100 days at the Quirinale

Public policies are a unifying element in a democracy marred by mistrust. President Mattarella places his trust in the citizens.

Sergio Mattarella was elected Italy’s president of the republic on 31 January 2015. Although the first 100 days of the honeymoon period are not yet behind him, we can assess the initial distinctive features to emerge from the seven-year term that has just begun.

Since Mattarella is Italy’s president, and not the head of government (that is the prime minister’s role), considerations mostly concern the discursive and communicative – as opposed to functional – dimension of this position within the Italian democracy. Clearly, the president of the republic performs a major institutional role as a constitutional watchdog, along with the many relevant related functions.

However, we have had little information to go on regarding these aspects since Mattarella’s election. Nor has he been called upon so far to handle any complex institutional or political crises, thanks to his predecessor. So all assessments must be based on what he has done and said while performing his institutional role on the public stage, a role that is by no means secondary since it has the power to shape the democratic discourse. On this count, a few novel elements are worth highlighting. 

The most apparent and noted of which is Mattarella’s personal style, which nevertheless takes on institutional significance. Everyone has seen the new president driving around Rome in his small Fiat Panda, travelling by train, taking the tram and heading home for the weekend on commercials flights.

No one would call former President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano anything but sober in his demeanour, but Mattarella gives the impression that his choices contain a direct political meaning as they express personal attitudes recognised by all those who know him well. The real significance here is that the president presides over a republic of citizens and does not belong to another world. His status and his role make him no different from anyone else, inasmuch as that is possible, though he does not follow the latest fashion among professional politicians of going tie-less in public (as proven by a recent ban on ties) as a way of indicating that they are ‘of the people’. This president seems worlds apart from that kind of rhetoric.

These attitudes are in keeping with the new public discourse that Mattarella introduced the moment he took office. In my opinion, the novelty lies in considering three closely related elements of this discourse: the recipients of the president’s message, the message and its content.

The president, quite clearly, has decided to address citizens, rather than politicians or institutions, as the favoured recipients of his message. It would be unfair – and wrong – to suggest that Mattarella’s predecessors did not have average Italians at heart, but they primarily addressed institutional and political figures. This president, however, is addressing Italians at large, not only to comfort them in these trying times but to recognise their efforts and spurring them on to persevere. Mattarella does not see them as spectators but rather as active participants in the construction of new reasons to remain united in an Italy that needs to believe in a shared destiny. It is an attempt to break the vicious circle of mistrust that separates society from political systems the world over, beginning with a huge investment of trust in the Italian people.

The message is clearly focused on the notion that the Constitution is not a relic. It has to be empowered and must be assessed by the way in which it applies to everyday democracy, which is where it gains or loses its stripes. The spheres of politics and public administration must take heed that they will be judged according to this yardstick. Which is why Mattarella’s speeches to young magistrates have focused on the role of justice as a public service in an environment of constant conflict between justice and politics and questions of magistrates’ civil responsibility.

Also relevant is the new president’s acknowledgement that a response to the breakdown of political representation and of traditional intermediate bodies in recent years has come from independent and unexpected forms of activism organised directly by citizens to protect their rights, as well as shared values such as the environment, and gain support for the weaker sections of society.

Mattarella’s content seems to be consistent with his choices regarding the message and its recipients. Rather than speak of politics, he has been speaking about public policies: in education, health, welfare, immigration, employment, business, the environment, equal opportunities for women and the young, and European integration. These are emergency issues in our democracy that need to be addressed and, at the same time, where the opportunity lies to strengthen the bonds that are the foundation of our shared citizenship.

When he was elected, plenty of words were spent on Mattarella’s ties with one of Italy’s great cultural and political traditions, the Christian Democratic Party. While these ties cannot be denied, what seems less predictable and more interesting is Mattarella’s relationship with contemporary Italy, a country that has changed greatly with respect to its long-standing image and today faces challenges that require a new, realistic approach. The fact that the new president of the republic says so can be considered good news. 

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