From Ceremonial Figure to Italy’s Quiet Power Broker


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Pier Paolo Cito/Associated Press

“It is time to re-establish a climate of calmness and mutual respect.” Giorgio Napolitano

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Published: December 2, 2011

SOME have taken to calling him simply “Re Giorgio,” or King George, for his stately defense of Italian democratic institutions and the outsize albeit behind-the-scenes role he played in the rapid shift from the cinematic government of Silvio Berlusconi to the technocratic one of Mario Monti.

He is President Giorgio Napolitano, 86, a former high-ranking member ofItaly’s Communist Party — Henry A. Kissinger is said to have called him his “favorite Communist” — who last month capped a distinguished career by orchestrating one of the most complex political transfers in Italian postwar history, and who remains a key guarantor of political stability in a rocky time.

His performance was all the more impressive in that the Italian presidency is a largely symbolic office, with no executive power. But Mr. Napolitano, who is known for his straight talk and down-to-earth style in a floridly baroque culture, pushed that role to its limit to become a quiet power broker.

He spent months laying the groundwork for the transition — consulting with Italian political leaders, European leaders, American officials and the Bank of Italy to shepherd the creation of a viable alternative government for the “post-Berlusconi” moment.

“Now is the time to show maximum responsibility. It is not the time to pay off old scores nor for sterile partisan recriminations,” Mr. Napolitano said in a statement when announcing Mr. Monti’s nomination. “It is time to re-establish a climate of calmness and mutual respect.”

“Napolitano not only dictated the timing of the solution but also the contents, that is the unusual thing,” said Andrea Simoncini, a constitutional law professor at the University of Florence. “He didn’t only say, ‘You have to do it soon’; he basically chose Monti and created the conditions so that people couldn’t not say yes to Monti.”

Today, Mr. Monti’s government is widely referred to as “a government of the president,” backed by Mr. Napolitano and the European Union as much as by the Italian Parliament, which gave Mr. Monti’s government a rousing vote of confidence last month but has yet to approve unpopular new austerity measures.

As often happens in Italy, momentum built slowly, but change happened swiftly. For months, Mr. Berlusconi had clung to power without solid support, making much-needed economic reforms impossible as world markets continued to hammer Italy. The trigger was pulled on Nov. 8, when Mr. Berlusconi lost his ruling majority on a vote the same day bond markets drove borrowing rates on Italian bonds to the same levels that have required other euro zone countries to seek bailouts.

That evening, a humbled Mr. Berlusconi went to meet Mr. Napolitano at the Quirinal presidential palace for consultations. Aides said the meeting was cordial, but its outcome was clear: The once-Teflon prime minister had agreed to step down.

Moving quickly, Mr. Napolitano plucked Mr. Monti from his post as president of Milan’s Bocconi University and anointed him as a senator for life, making him a full member of Parliament, not just an academic outsider. “That was an act of genius,” said Corrado Augias, a veteran Italian political commentator and writer. “He took a professor and redressed him as a politician.”

IT helped that Mr. Napolitano, whose seven-year term began in 2006, enjoys popular approval ratings of around 80 percent, compared with 20 percent in recent weeks for Mr. Berlusconi. “This was his life insurance, because if he hadn’t had it, Berlusconi would have eaten him for lunch,” Mr. Augias said.

In the topsy-turvy world of Mr. Berlusconi’s Italy, where the prime minister’s personal life came to overshadow the work of governance, Mr. Napolitano had emerged as the anti-Berlusconi. With his elegant yet feisty wife, Clio, by his side, a lawyer whom he married in 1959, Mr. Napolitano came to be seen as embodying a different Italy, one of civic virtue.

This month, the Italian edition of Wired magazine named Mr. Napolitano its man of the year, for displaying “a surprising speed in remaining connected to reality. In a word: Wired.”

Even after Mr. Berlusconi did step down, the idea of replacing his cabinet with a technocratic government was not at all a given. The former prime minister’s center-right coalition was dead set on early elections, and some in his former coalition criticize the Monti government as an anti-democratic coup.

But in a new order in which markets trumped traditional democratic processes, President Obama, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France all called Mr. Napolitano during the delicate transition to express their support for his leadership — calls widely seen as tacit support for a Monti government over early elections.

It was a striking indication of how far Mr. Napolitano, to say nothing of the rest of the world, has come in the last years of his career.

At one time, the idea of an American president thanking Mr. Napolitano — who was essentially the foreign minister of the Italian Communist Party — or even calling him was unthinkable.

In his earlier years, Mr. Napolitano did not stray much from the Communist Party line, once going so far as to say that the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 had contributed to peace in the world, according to a 2006 article in Corriere della Sera. But by 1969, he was part of a group of Italian Communists who broke with the Kremlin to criticize the crackdown of the Prague Spring uprising of 1968.

LIKE many Communists from his native Naples, Mr. Napolitano hailed from the more conservative wing of the party, whose members were known as the “miglioristi,” or the “improvers,” for their desire to make the world better through government rather than revolution.

The ambassador to Italy under President Jimmy Carter, Richard N. Gardner, wrote in his memoirs about his secret meetings with Mr. Napolitano, who was respected enough to become one of the first Italian Communist officials to visit the United States.

He made the trip in 1978, just weeks after the dramatic kidnapping of Prime Minister Aldo Moro by a leftist radical group, and delivered well-received lectures at leading universities. None other than the seven-time Christian Democratic prime minister Giulio Andreotti, the mastermind of postwar Italian politics, said that he had helped secure Mr. Napolitano a visa.

In the late 1980s, as the communist project was ending and the party reacted by closing ranks, Mr. Napolitano fell out of favor by calling for closer ties with the Socialists, whose social democratic views he largely shared. He left instead for Strasbourg, France, where he was a member of the European Parliament from 1989 to 1992.

After the collapse of Italy’s old political order in a bribery scandal, Mr. Napolitano returned to Italy in 1992 and became speaker of the Lower House, where he commanded broad support. In 1996 he was seen as enough above the fray to be named Italy’s first post-Communist interior minister, a politically sensitive position that involves overseeing the secret service.

Now, Italians are looking to Mr. Napolitano to guide the ship of state with quiet skill as Mr. Monti and his team of technocrats take on the treacherous challenge of modernizing Italy’s creaking economy.

I appreciate his dynamism and courage, especially remarkable for a man of that age,” said Paolo Olsoufieff, a retired businessman, as he read a newspaper in a restaurant in downtown Rome. “He is the only man capable of holding at bay the circus of ferocious beasts that is the Italian Parliament.”

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