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Welcome to Squid Game, Italian style

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ROME — The selection of Italy’s president has been likened to hit TV show “Squid Game” — albeit with no actual killing and lots of espresso.

More than 1,000 lawmakers and their staff have descended on Rome to elect the new president. The bars and restaurants are packed but, if you need a reminder that we still live in COVID times, any parliamentarian who tests positive for coronavirus will have to cast their vote in a drive-through ballot box in a car park.

They say that the Italian president’s role contracts and expands like an accordion, depending on how much of a crisis the country is in (and it is often in a crisis) but although it is largely a ceremonial position, the president has sweeping powers.

He or she is elected by national politicians and regional representatives rather than ordinary people, so there is no pitch to the nation and the hard work is done in the corridors — and quiet corners — of power, via so-called palazzo games. Scheming and horse-trading, the likes of which would make Machiavelli blush, go on between mouthfuls of pasta and glugs of red wine.

To get the job, you need a two-thirds majority (that’s 673 of the 1,009 voters) in the first three rounds of voting, after which a simple majority is sufficient. The voting began on Monday, and the aim is to wrap things up before February 3, when the mandate of incumbent Sergio Mattarella expires.

The rules of the game are arcane. For its proponents, the need for both bluffing and seeing several moves ahead requires the skills of both poker and 3D chess. To outsiders — and cynics — it appears more like blind man’s buff.

One political observer called it “a ritual, a sung Mass that has to be celebrated.” Italian media have dubbed it “Quirinale Game” — referencing both the site of the presidential palace and the Netflix series “Squid Game,” the South Korean survival drama.

Oh, and it’s bad form to say you actually want the job.

Stay silent

Names of possible candidates are put forward all the time, like lambs to the slaughter.

Three supposedly potential candidates were put forward by the right-wing alliance on Tuesday alone — in the full knowledge that they would be rejected.

As Enrico Letta, leader of the left-wing Democratic Party, told the TV cameras he would consider the three contenders carefully, the leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, walked past and applauded his performance.

So who will get the job?

The most likely candidates will have probably kept a very low profile. No one could accuse Silvio Berlusconi of being low profile, however, which in part explains why his bid for the job failed.

Berlusconi’s unorthodox canvassing operation, codenamed Operation Squirrel, fell flat. His self-aggrandizing newspaper ads and attempts to lobby lawmakers trashed the convention of reserve among presidential hopefuls and even drew ridicule. 

“He introduced himself as Mr. Bunga Bunga,” Bianca Laura Granato, an independent senator who received a phone call from Berlusconi, said in a radio interview.

Prime Minister Mario Draghi is very different from Berlusconi and was widely favored to ascend to the role in recent months, but he lost support the moment he admitted at an end-of-year press conference that he would be willing to accept the job. By contrast, Mattarella, who has signaled at least a dozen times that he will not accept a second mandate, is looking more likely by the minute.

The first three days of voting are usually a washout, as no one gets close to the number of votes needed to win. In 10 of the last 12 presidential elections, no one has been elected until at least the fourth round of voting.

To pass the time, people amuse themselves by voting for a wide range of people. There is no ballot. You just write down any name you like, even fictional characters.

So far this year we’ve had votes for pop stars, footballers and even former Prime Minister Bettino Craxi — and he’s been dead for two years. There were also five votes for Guido De Martini, an MP who couldn’t come to Rome as he doesn’t have a vaccination pass and was therefore banned from boarding a ferry or plane from his home in Sardinia.    

Whether or not the general public is interested (and they probably aren’t), the election is treated with great importance, with some of the main TV channels running marathon sessions for days. But could this be the last election of its kind?

There have been high-profile calls — including from Meloni of the Brothers of Italy and from ex-Prime Minister Matteo Renzi — for this to be the last presidential election held in such a fashion, and for future votes to be cast by the people.

If that happens, its quirkiness — if nothing else — will be missed.



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