Analysis-Draghi for president? How promotion could unravel Italy's fragile progress

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By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) - In office since February, Prime Minister Mario Draghi has brought a measure of political stability to Italy and overseen economic recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, but lawmakers could soon jeopardise that by electing him president of the republic.

Parliament will convene to choose a new head of state in late January, and the former European Central Bank chief is the bookmaker's favourite to replace the Sergio Mattarella, who has made clear he does not want another seven-year term.

However, such a move may alarm investors, who view Draghi as the safest pair of hands to oversee the management of more than 200 billion euros ($230 billion) from a European Union post-pandemic recovery fund seen as vital to Italy's future.

His promotion to the Quirinale presidential palace might also plunge Italy, which has had seven prime ministers in the past decade, back into political turmoil and stymie efforts to enact crucial reforms.

New national elections are not due until the first half of 2023 and analysts say the current government needs another year to continue its programme of measures agreed with Brussels in return for regular instalments of Recovery Fund cash.

For this reason, Italy and Draghi face a quandary. Is the premier more useful in his current role, due to expire in little more than a year, or as head of state until 2029?

From being a largely ceremonial figure, the Italian president has become a much more pro-active force in recent years as the political landscape fractured, regularly stepping in to resolve crises and decide who should form governments.

"The president is the lynchpin of the system and the guarantor of our international accords," said Giovanni Orsina, politics professor at Rome's LUISS university.

"Due to the Recovery Fund, relations between Italy and the EU are particularly important, and with the parties in crisis the president will have the key role for the next seven years."

SECRET VOTE

There are no official candidates in presidential elections and voting is held in secret, giving lawmakers the option to ignore any diktats from party leaders.

With his background at the ECB and as Italy's central bank chief, Draghi carried rare clout even before taking the helm of a national unity government amid pandemic, and many senior politicians openly back his promotion to president.

Draghi has so far brushed off questions on whether he wants the job -- a silence that has been taken to mean he would not refuse the most prestigious position in Italy, if offered it.

While policy-making remains firmly in the hands of the prime minister and the cabinet, some politicians have suggested traditional roles could be informally adjusted to allow Draghi to continue to pilot the economy from the Quirinale.

"Draghi would become De Gaulle," Industry Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti said late in September, referring to Charles De Gaulle who bolstered presidential powers in France in the 1960s.

Critics say that such an extension of the president's powers would breach Italy's constitution.

Economy Minister Daniele Franco, a technocrat without party affiliation, would be the likely frontrunner for replacing Draghi as prime minister, but it would be a daunting challenge.

ALTERNATIVE CANDIDATES

A senior government source said he thought Draghi was the only person with the stature to keep "vegans and carnivores" together in the same cabinet. If the unity coalition collapses, elections could beckon a year ahead of schedule.

Many current parliamentarians would lose their right to a lucrative pension if the legislature ends prematurely, so fear that backing Draghi might inadvertently lead to a snap vote might persuade many of them to support another name.

A raft of alternative nominees are cited in the media each day, with the presidential election already dominating Rome's political debate.

The Forza Italia party has put forward its leader, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, as the first choice candidate for the entire centre-right bloc -- a controversial figure the centre-left would never be able to rally behind.

More plausible candidates include former premier Giuliano Amato, former lower house speaker Pier Ferdinando Casini and Justice Minister Marta Cartabia, a one-time head of the constitutional court who is popular amongst those who want to see Italy elect its first female head of state.

As of yet, none of them have attracted universal appeal.

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