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Kissinger’s ‘Favorite Communist,’ President Napolitano of Italy, Resigns

There’s hardly an Italian who doesn’t sympathize with President Giorgio Napolitano’s decision to resign despite the fact that he has another five years left in his unprecedented second presidential term. Italy’s highly respected head of state is 89; if he served out his full time he would be 94 when he left office. And Napolitano has already left a legacy that includes distancing the presidency from the bedlam of Italian politics and earning the esteem of foreign leaders.  

It was a political deadlock that led to Napolitano agreeing to serve for a second six-year term in 2013 when the Italian Senate and lower house that elect the Italian president failed to agree on a successor, but Napolitano won’t be there to bail out the politicians again on January 29th, when voting starts for a new president. In the first three ballots a two-thirds majority is required to elect a candidate, after that a simple majority will suffice, and presidential elections tend to spill over to a fourth or fifth ballot, or even more.

If the voting drags on, say, beyond five ballots, it will be bad news for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi because it will signify defections by his political partners in Italy’s wobbly center-left coalition government. Renzi is a reform-minded prime minister who has yet to do any reforming. If the coming fight over the presidency forces him into elections, he will most likely be gone before he has tackled the modernization Italy needs, and dangerous political and economic conditions are likely to become more so.

Since 2008, the country’s economy has shrunk 9 percent and manufacturing output has dropped by 25 percent, according to a recent Financial Times report. By 2016, the public debt is expected to have risen to 133 percent of economic output, and unemployment has topped 13 percent—but is 40 percent among those under 25 years old.

Elections would be testing time for Renzi because it was Napolitano and not the Italian electorate that chose him to lead the country in the first place, just as the president was responsible for the appointment of Renzi’s two predecessors Mario Monti and Enrico Letta after having had a hand in the resignation of Silvio Berlusconi in 2011.

The Italian presidency is largely a ceremonial post—until it isn’t. The president has somewhat loosely defined powers to dissolve governments, call new elections, and to influence the formation of new governments. In Italy, this is hardly a routine process. Having helped dispose of Berlusconi in the midst of sex scandals and allegations of tax fraud, Napolitano chose Monti, an economist, to run the country, in large part because he was acceptable to the European Union. But without a mandate from voters, Monti couldn’t survive in Italy’s political jungle, and neither could Letta.

Napolitano’s efforts to put together a mainstream government that would confront Italy’s pressing economic problems while at the same time keeping at bay growing populist, anti-establishment, anti-European sentiment earned him the nickname King Giorgio. What in another president could well have been questioned as overstepping his constitutional mandate was widely accepted from Napolitano, who was seen as a steady—even moral—influence on Italian politics at an uncertain time.

And not just in Italy. When Napolitano appointed Monti, he received calls of approval from other European leaders and, of all people, from President Obama. The latter call was one of history’s small ironies: for almost four decades as a member of the leadership of the Italian Communist Party, the PCI, Napolitano was one of Washington’s bêtes noirs in its continuous efforts to keep the Communists out of power in Italy, despite their consistent 30 percent or so of the vote in one election after another.

A Communist from his student days until the party’s dissolution following the Soviet collapse, Napolitano backed party secretary Enrico Berlinguer’s efforts to establish the PCI’s independence from Moscow, thus hoping to make it acceptable as a coalition partner in Italy. But because of persistent American opposition, the closest that the “Eurocommunist” PCI ever got to a role in government was the prospect of a so-called “historic compromise” with Italy’s ruling Christian Democracy party, whereby the Communists provided parliamentary support for the government without actually being a part of it. The deal was discussed for a couple of years before it was solidified in 1978.

Henry Kissinger called the urbane, articulate Napolitano “my favorite communist.” Knowing Kissinger’s deviousness, he might have been trying to undermine Napolitano by casting suspicion that he might be in league with the Americans. But Napolitano was denied a US visa until 1978, when he finally traveled to America and lectured at Princeton, Harvard, and Yale on how the Italian Communist Party had embraced democracy, and recognized Italy’s membership in NATO.

The Italian leader who opened the way for PCI collaboration with the Christian Democrats was Aldo Moro, who said with a perfectly straight face that the two parties could move on “converging parallel lines”—convergenze parallelle. In Italian politics, that bizarre concept went without challenge. In 1978, on the day that he was scheduled to present a new coalition government with Communist support from the parliamentary benches, Moro was kidnapped by the militant Marxist underground Red Brigades and assassinated as punishment for, in effect, seducing the PCI with a vague promise of influence without power. The Red Brigades left Moro’s body parked in a Renault outside the PCI headquarters in Via Botteghe Oscure—their gesture of rebuke and defiance to the party for giving up the Marxist struggle. The collapse of the once powerful Communist Party in Italy began at that moment. 

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