Commentary. Sergio Mattarella’s decision to block a ministerial appointment is nothing more than the the president enforcing his own preferred policy line onto the government, which is forbidden to the head of state from the outset.

Blocking Paolo Savona was a costly mistake

The yellow-green government and the legislature are at risk. The conflict between the majority in parliament and President Sergio Mattarella has reached critical levels. The stumbling block, so to speak, was Paolo Savona. He has a stellar resume, he is a veteran in public office, yet he has run into hardline opposition from Quirinal Hill.

Regarding the choice of ministers, there is precedent for the president to oppose particular names. The essential part, however, is the reasons for doing so. Apparently Mattarella was concerned with regard to Europe and the country’s framework of alliances.

With all due respect, we should say it clearly: Mattarella barring Savona from the Ministry of Economy and Finance was a mistake.

Most importantly, what should the head of state take into account first and foremost? The government program is the document of reference, more important than the choice of ministers, and, from this point of view, the document produced by the yellow-green coalition no longer called for an exit from the eurozone, from NATO, or anything else that many would see as borne out of dangerous fantasies. Its contents are reassuring, unless one were to accuse those who put it forward of deliberate lies. It is not appropriate for the head of state to ask for anything more at this point.

In any event, international treaties and agreements were not brought down by Moses on stone tablets. They can be challenged, renegotiated, rewritten, even denounced unilaterally. Particularly when it comes to Europe, Italian governments of all stripes have been demanding a clear change in course for years, and never got it. The potential new government did not, after all, ask for anything more than that.

Furthermore, in the case of presidential opposition to the choice of particular ministers, the best precedents, and those which are best able to command support, concern candidates for which one might question their ability to discharge their office with “discipline and honor,” as the Constitution requires. Clearly, presidential opposition seems inappropriate when it is not motivated by the candidate’s qualifications or abilities, but rather by opinions they expressed in the more or less recent past. In our particular case, if the government program does not substantiate such fears, why couldn’t such opinions be treated as simply the prior exercise of freedom of thought by the ministerial candidate? Did anyone really think that, once he was installed in his post, Savona would have turned against the government’s publicly stated position and gone ahead with his own? This unrealistic scenario belongs only to the realm of abstract possibility. Were that to actually happen, such a minister could easily be forced to resign, or, in an extreme case, be removed from his post by a vote of no confidence, as in the case of Mancuso during the Dini government.

It seems we must read Mattarella’s opposition to Savona in terms of the president wanting to avoid even the risk that the choice of a particular minister might orient the government’s policies, whatever the program says, in an undesirable direction. It is meant to be an early stopgap to prevent possible dangerous tendencies. But this is, in the end, nothing more than the the president enforcing his own preferred policy line onto the government, which is forbidden to the head of state from the outset.

The president can certainly speak out on the matter of policy lines if he deems it in the interest of the country, but strictly within the bounds of moral suasion, and not by means of exercising his formal powers which concern the status of the government, the relationship with Parliament or the government’s decisions.

In an extreme case, the president might go further if the government program contains features that are obviously unconstitutional. This is not the case here. But even in such an event, the likely remedy would be the dissolution of the Parliament and calling for new elections, not a “rewrite” by the president himself.

The fact that this decision is on shaky constitutional grounds is a sign of a political error and of risks brought upon the institution of the presidency. It has opened itself up to attacks for defending the powers-that-be and the hidden elites running the country, who in the service of their own interests are preventing us from deciding our own fate. And the president can also be accused of dramatizing the situation instead of striking a reassuring tone, thus heightening the tensions in the markets and those concerning the country’s financial situation. Was Savona really the hill to die on? This was a danger that should have been avoided.

I believe a yellow-green government should be fought politically because, as I have said and written before, it would be, to a large extent, a right-wing government. I hope there is, or will be, a Left that is able to lead the fight. However, as a constitutionalist, I will defend the rights of a majority chosen by Italians at the polls to form a new government with their own ministers and their own policies. It is not within Mattarella’s powers to prevent this from happening. It has to be left to the people, the ultimate sovereign, to vote them out whenever they deem it proper.

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