Former Italian president Giorgio Napolitano has died at the age of 98. A longtime member of the Communist Party, he devolved into a staunch establishment figure that made nice with the neoliberalism of the EU and Washington.

Giorgio Napolitano attends the last congress of the Communist Party of Italy in 1991, which would inaugurate its rebirth as the Democratic Party of the Left. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images)

There are many watersheds that cut through the Italian left’s history: in its life before and after the Italian Communist Party (PCI), before and after the birth of the Democratic Party (PD) in 2007, but also, perhaps most importantly, before and after Giorgio Napolitano. By some curious fate, Napolitano, throughout his life a leading figure in the PCI — he was himself born only four years after its creation at the Livorno Congress in 1921 — arrived at his historical function only after reaching eighty years of age, when he was elected president of the republic in 2006.

Napolitano had surely also made some history in the PCI’s ranks. He always represented this party’s social democratic calling, stubbornly held in check by a leadership group which could not make this concession to the Socialist cousins from whom they had split at Livorno in 1921, even if the party was effectively heading in that direction. The PCI kept the Communist name: because of loyalty to its lineage, because of care for its brand, because of its reference to a popular base forged in the great struggles following World War II. Even after the PCI announced a name change under leader Achille Occhetto in 1989, it opted for progressive-hued “Democratic Party of the Left,” rather than getting mixed up with the term “Socialist,” now soiled by the record of Bettino Craxi’s Italian Socialist Party (PSI).

Napolitano, however, who grew up in Naples under the protective wing of the most right-wing and most Stalinist of Communist leaders, Giorgio Amendola, cultivated a moderate communism, open to the middle classes, yet never breaking with the parent company. Take the Eighth Congress of the PCI, in 1956, immediately after the tragic events in Hungary when Soviet tanks suppressed the revolt in Budapest. Responding to the clear stance taken by Antonio Giolitti, who left the PCI in response to the events, Napolitano demurred: for him, “in addition to preventing Hungary from falling into chaos and counterrevolution” Moscow had “decisively contributed not only to defending the military and strategic interests of the USSR but to saving world peace.”

Napolitano soon joined the central committee of the PCI. At the Eleventh Congress, in 1966, the first following historic leader Palmiro Togliatti’s death — a Congress that saw the historic clash between Giorgio Amendola and left-wing leader Pietro Ingrao, who secured less votes — Napolitano also became the coordinator of the PCI secretariat. The compass was already the one set by Amendola in 1964 in an article in the party magazine Rinascita, in which this prestigious PCI leader proposed “a great new party of the working class.” This hypothesized a reunification with the socialist PSI, even as this latter party was in government together with the Christian Democrats and preparing an ultimately failed unification with Giuseppe Saragat’s Italian Democratic Socialist Party (the PSDI, anti-communist social democrats).

“Neither of the two solutions put forward to the working class of the capitalist countries of Western Europe in the last fifty years,” Amendola wrote, “the social-democratic solution and the communist solution, has so far proved fit for the purpose of achieving a socialist transformation of society.” The merger, then, was not meant to reintegrate the Communists into the Socialists, or to represent an admission of defeat, but rather to take place on a new basis. Even then, the hypothesis of forming a “single party” triggered widespread rebellion within Communist ranks, though Napolitano drew deeply on this idea as a strategic solution for the Italian left.

Napolitano would not be chosen to succeed Luigi Longo (PCI leader from 1964–72) as party secretary — Enrico Berlinguer instead took over the reins. Yet in this period he began to cultivate an international role and, above all, to become the PCI’s main point of reference for relations with Washington. Here was Napolitano the Atlanticist, able to reassure Western chancelleries and build solid relationships with a reliability that would be put to work during his second life, as president of Italy from 2006.

Napolitano as President

During the debate over the PCI’s name change at the end of the Cold War, Napolitano like Amendola before him proposed a social democratic outcome, through reunification with the PSI. He was again defeated, remaining in the minority in the party. Still, this did not stop him being elected president of the Chamber of Deputies, in the short-lived legislature from 1992 to 1994. Importantly for his future role, this same moment also saw Silvio Berlusconi make his entrance into frontline politics.

Napolitano was seen as a respectable figure; by virtue of his moderate and institutional record he became interior minister in Romano Prodi’s first center-left government, in 1996. He gave his name to the Turco-Napolitano law, the first to tighten Italy’s anti-immigration laws. But his moment of glory came only in 2006, when, after the election victory for the center-left l’Unione coalition, its legislators had to pick a new head of state. The leading candidate seemed to be another ex-PCI man, the 1998–2000 prime minister Massimo D’Alema. Yet, as well as center-right opposition, D’Alema faced much hostility among both his own party and its allies. He stepped aside and the Democrats of the Left chose Napolitano. He was offered even to the opposition as a safe pair of hands, though other than the centrist Pierferdinando Casini none rallied behind him. He was, nonetheless, elected president.

Napolitano set out to cleanse the nascent Democratic Party of even its meager residues of radicalism.

The president of the Italian Republic has, historically, been a discreet figure, guaranteeing institutional propriety rather than taking part in government decision making. Yet from the president’s office, Napolitano did much more to guide the country’s politicians, and especially the main center-left party, than this role would suggest. Above all, he set out to cleanse the nascent Democratic Party — formally constituted in October 2007 — of even its meager residues of radicalism, as he stood for a prosystem, establishment party, especially in a pro-EU and Atlanticist key. This role would be demonstrated to the point of exhaustion through his many episodes of direct intervention in day-to-day politics, and through a prominence that placed him beyond challenge. This led him to a first major constitutional exception in 2013, when he became the first president of the republic to be reelected to this role.

Napolitano had immediately made clear, not even a month after his first election, what the hallmark of his presidency would be. On June 7, 2006, Napolitano invited for lunch at the presidential palace a man who had not helped elect him president, but whom he did want to involve in running the country: Berlusconi. Where Romano Prodi’s center-left government had the shakiest of majorities, with only a two-vote margin in the Senate, Napolitano asked for constant “tests of its cohesion” and proofs of reliability on two fundamental issues: respect for EU economic parameters (and thus of austerity budgeting) and full acceptance of international choices on military missions, starting with Afghanistan.

Precisely on this policy area, faced with the tumult within the governing center left, he demanded a confirmation of its majority in the Senate in February 2007, when the executive turned out to need opposition votes for the expansion of the US military base in Vicenza. Foreign minister Massimo D’Alema’s resolution did not achieve a majority, forcing Prodi’s resignation, which was withdrawn less than twenty-four hours later. Napolitano became increasingly convinced that the bipolar party system, with its often instrumental divides, was not the most favorable model for Italy. For him, the center-left and center-right coalitions should talk to each other — and collaborate more. When Prodi fell in January 2008, Napolitano tried to offer the reins of government to former Christian Democrat Franco Marini, in an administration involving Berlusconi. Yet the move failed, as the tycoon had no interest in avoiding snap elections where he was poised to win a crushing majority.

Crossing the Floor

It would take the 2011 sovereign debt crisis (in Italy known as the “spread” crisis, in reference to the gap between Italian and German bond yields), before Napolitano could again carry forward his project. This relied decisively on the domestic and international delegitimization of Berlusconi’s government.

If Napolitano’s choice was indeed legitimate, it was also a kind of private raid on the political system. After the collapse of the Berlusconi government — on November 8, 2011, it got the state accounts approved only thanks to the opposition not participating in the vote — on November 9, Napolitano appointed Mario Monti, former president of the Bocconi private university, a senator for life.

This explicitly pointed the way out of the crisis: now brought into parliament by Napolitano, Monti was chosen to head a government of technocrats, backed by both center left and center right in parliament. After former central banker Carlo Azeglio Ciampi’s government in 1992 — the same year Napolitano became president of the Chamber of Deputies — broad understandings, grand coalitions, and “backroom deals” — a tendency always present in parliamentary institutions, and this time justified in terms of the greater good of the nation — came back into vogue. Monti was short lived; in 2013 there was another election, and an “earthquake” caused by the great victory of the Five Star Movement, which turned the political balance upside down.

Napolitao made sure that the Democratic Party never departed from the line of ‘national responsibility’ that made it increasingly a party of the system.

This time, too, Napolitano refused to give a proper mandate to Democratic leader Pierluigi Bersani to try and form a government, even though he had come in first place in the elections. Napolitano instead preferred a government of “broad understandings,” of center left plus parts of the center right, in coalitions headed first by Enrico Letta and then by Matteo Renzi. In all these steps, Napolitano did not merely suggest or advise, but anticipated events, determined and guided them. He made sure that the Democratic Party never departed from the line of “national responsibility” that made it increasingly a party of the system, of the establishment, perceived in such terms by voters and indeed constantly punished at the ballot box.

National responsibility, after all, was the central feature of Napolitano’s presidential mandate, far beyond constitutional dictates. He ensured that Italy remained fully within the rules of Atlanticism, as evidenced by the leading role he took in the 2011 Libyan crisis, when he pressed Berlusconi — who had “refused to be enlisted” — to support the bombing of Tripoli and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. Napolitano fought to ensure Italy never deviated from the dictates of Brussels and worked decisively — even forming a special “expert” commission — for a constitutional reform that would intensify the trend, underway already in the early 1990s, of concentrating power in the executive at the expense of the legislature.

Faced with Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, Napolitano ventured that this was one of the “most shocking events in the history of European and American democracy, and of universal suffrage, which has not always been a story of advancement.” Such an elitist way of thinking was worthy of the finest European liberal-conservatism. In his heart, it was this lineage to which Napolitano belonged, despite his long career in the Communist Party. From the standpoint of his own historical role, it could appear as nothing more than an accident of history.

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