Christmas, usually a political dead season, was enlivened in Italy by the election of a new president. Indeed, on Christmas Day itself, deputies, senators, regional representatives, ex-presidents, etc, trooped into the Palazzo Montecitorio—368 to say ‘I abstain’ and another 100 to drop a blank paper into the urn. Eventually, after 21 ballots and 12 days, Giuseppe Saragat received the necessary absolute majority and was declared President. His election was, above all, a blow to the Christian Democratic party, the dominant partner in the ruling centre-left coalition: they were confronted, for the first time since the war, with a president who was not one of their own but came from a lay party and, what seemed even worse, had been elected by the switch of Communist votes at the decisive moment. The centre-left coalition and the Christian Democratic party had been revealed as spectacularly divided among themselves and incredibly inept. The Christian Democrats had half anticipated discomfiture: although President Segni was paralyzed by a stroke, they had delayed replacing him as long as possible by exploiting the lack of any clear constitutional procedure for declaring him incapable. And when it finally came, it came at a cheerlessly sensitive time: shortly after the coalition had seen its vote slump badly at the municipal elections, in an atmosphere of mounting discontent (both within and without the government) at the dust gathering on its legislative programme.

The ebbs and flows of the election were exceedingly complex, but it is worth giving some account of them: it is rare that the workings and tensions of party caucuses and coalitions are so transparent to the observer. The role of president is not entirely formal. He has patronage at his disposal, he can intervene decisively in the political flux, he can contest certain ill-defined prerogatives with the Prime Minister. At any rate, it is a post which is coveted. To get it, a great deal of bargaining, bludgeoning and bidding for support is necessary. No less than seven parties put up their own candidate, each of them ready, if need be, to switch behind one of the others. Moreover, several of the parties—particularly the Christian Democratic party—are split among themselves and caucus leaders can muster votes quite outside the control of the official party secretary. The vote is secret and so discipline therefore is difficult to maintain: the only way to trace an elector’s vote is if he abstains. In these circumstances, tactical skill is at a premium; the leadership of the Christian Democrats needed it most of all; it turned out to have it least.

In 1959, a group of dissidents, since known as the dorotei, plotted at the Convent of St. Dorothy, near Rome, the downfall of Amintore Fanfani, at that time secretary of the Christian Democratic Party and Prime Minister. The intrigue was successful and today the dorotei control the party machine and are thus the hub of the centre-left coalition which they inherited from Fanfani. Power is shared: Moro, who has some following of his own, is Prime Minister; Rumor is party secretary; Colombo, the treasury minister, has the confidence of the Confindustria and big industrial capital; Bonomi, the head of the Federconsorzi, controls rural patronage and has a base among the sourthern landowners and farmers. The dorotei were able to count on well over half of the Christian Democrat electors and evidently felt strong enough to push through their own nominee, Giovanni Leone, a lawyer from Naples and former president of the chamber. They hoped to get the votes of most, if not quite all, of the centre-left coalition plus some support from the Liberals on the right and a few strays. There were, however, two principal obstacles: the candidacies of Saragat and Fanfani. Saragat, the Social Democrat foreign secretary, had made it quite clear that he wanted the post; sooner or later either he or Leone would have to withdraw in order to avoid splitting the centre-left vote. Fanfani had a score to settle with the dorotei. He could rely on a following of about 90 Christian Democrats, built up in the days when he controlled the machine and persisting as a pole of antagonism to the dorotei. He calculated that if there was a deadlock he could assemble a very heterogeneous majority stretching from the Communists right across to the Fascists and Monarchists, united by a wish to prise away the dorotei’s grasp on the system. He had pleased some on the left by canvassing the enlargement of the centre-left to include the Communists, others by the prospect of creating dissension in the Christian Democrat party and the ruling class at large; his autocratic personality and his record under fascism attracted the far right.

In the event, it seemed unlikely that Leone would get a majority. At the first ballot he was well over a hundred short and from then on his vote progressively decreased, most of the defaulters drifting to Fanfani at a pre-arranged tempo. Despite successive infusions from the Liberals and the Neo-Fascists his vote continued to fall, so that by the tenth ballot it was 20 below the first. Saragat, seeing that the situation was deadlocked, had already dropped out, reserving himself the chance to reenter later when the Christian Democrats came to abandon Leone. Fanfani, with the help of the Unitarian Socialists, was now well past the hundred. Pastore, the candidate of the left wing of the Christian Democrats and the Catholic trade unionists, had 40. The Christian Democrats were now openly split into three tendencies and the dorotei desperately tried to restore party discipline. They forced the withdrawal of Fanfani by threatening him with explusion, but they could not force his supporters to vote for Leone; most of them dropped blank papers into the urn. Pastore too was compelled to withdraw and Donat Cattin, a deputy minister and the most prominent Catholic unionist, was suspended from the party when he openly admitted he had not voted for Leone as a protest against the latter’s acceptance of Neo-Fascist votes for his candidacy. For a time it seemed that Pastore himself, minister for the South, would resign from the cabinet.

But still the dorotei obstinately persisted in running Leone. Meanwhile a new candidate appeared: the Socialists put forward Pietro Nenni, the vice-premier. This was clearly a response to the character of Leone’s candidacy which was not at all, as it pretended to be, a candidacy of the centre-left but of the right, supported by the dorotei, the right-wing Christian Democrats around Scelba, the Liberals and the Neo-Fascists. For a time, the configuration of Italian party politics changed from a grouping of centre parties with both extremes in opposition and became a straight left-right confrontation. At the thirteenth ballot, the Communists, who had previously supported their own candidate, Terracini, switched to Nenni, who thanked them in an effusive letter. It looked as if Nenni would soon overtake Leone: it was only necessary for the Unitarian Socialists to drop their scruples against backing Nenni, from whose Socialist party they had broken away less than a year before. At this point, finally, Leone withdrew. On Christmas Day, at the sixteenth ballot, the whole Christian Democratic party abstained while the search began for a compromise candidate.

The Christian Democrats first considered and then rejected the possibility of an extra-parliamentary candidate: Brosio, the secretary-general of nato, for instance, or Carli, the governor of the Bank of Italy. Fanfani was out of the question because of the bitter animosity between him and the dorotei—his chance would only come if no compromise could be found. Eventually a short-list of three was drawn up: Piccioni, chairman of the party, Pastore and Saragat. Piccioni, rather right of centre, would hardly have attracted more support than Leone. Pastore was at that moment involved in a serious inner-party quarrel. Besides, he was self-educated and unpolished, disabilities—so many thought—for a President, and might prove even more favourable to the left than Saragat. Finally, Saragat was the choice.

Saragat re-entered at the eighteenth ballot. For a time the Socialists and Communists continued to vote for Nenni, joined now by the Unitarian Socialists; but at the twenty-first count finally switched to Saragat, who was thus elected. (The Unitarian Socialists did not make the switch but joined the bulk of the fanfaniani and other malcontents in casting blank votes.) The Christian Democrats did their best to cover up their discomfiture, pointing out how Saragat’s wife went to mass and how ‘responsible’ he was, and so on and so forth. The general opinion, however, as expressed even in the right-wing press, was that they had been humiliated as a result of their incompetance and obstinacy. If they had supported Saragat on the first ballot, he would have been elected there and then. Many blamed the Vatican for putting pressure on the Christian Democrats not to vote for a candidate from a lay party.