SFor decades, Clemente Mastella has always been there when you need him in Italian politics. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte currently needs all the support he needs to survive the government crisis in Rome. And Clemente Mastella, now 73 years old and mayor of Benevento near Naples since 2016, is happy to be there for him. Mastella does not currently have a seat in parliament herself, but his wife Sandra Lonardo has been a senator since 2018.
Political correspondent for Italy, the Vatican, Albania and Malta, based in Rome.
And in the smaller parliamentary chamber, where the ailing Prime Minister asked the vote of confidence on Tuesday, the majority situation for Conte is even more uncertain than in the House of Representatives since the left-wing liberal small party Italia Viva of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi withdrew from the coalition last Wednesday.
Mastella is the epitome of the “voltagabbana”, the “coat changer”, as they are used to call political defectors in Italy. He has belonged to nearly a dozen different parties or political alliances, some of which he founded himself.
“How Italy’s politicians became untouchable”
In the bestseller “La Casta” (The Caste), published in 2007, two journalists from the newspaper “Corriere della Sera” described “how Italy’s politicians became untouchable” (the subtitle of the book). Mastella plays a leading role in it. Mastella began his career after studying philosophy as a journalist at the public broadcaster Rai, where he was directed in a senior position by party friends of the Democrazia Cristiana (DC). In 1976 he made the leap into the Chamber of Deputies for the DC.
He stayed there until 2006, then in the Senate for two more years. After the dissolution of the DC in 1994, Mastella belonged to various successor parties to the Christian Democrats, now right and now left of the political center. In the first cabinet of the Conservative Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Mastella was Labor Minister from 1994 to 1995.
From 2006 to 2008, Mastella was then, after a few more party political skins, Minister of Justice in the cabinet of the Social Democrat Romano Prodi. The feat of belonging to the governments of the two political archenemies of Italian politics of the past decades could only be accomplished by Mastella. In addition to his duties in parliament and government, Mastella found time to serve several times as mayor of his home town of Ceppaloni in Campania and to defend himself against all kinds of charges in court on allegations of corruption and ties to the Mafia.
An alliance called “Better Us”
In the European Parliament from 2009 to 2014 Mastella was remembered as one of the most reliable truants. He found that the daily rates and allowances granted in Strasbourg were pathetic compared to what he was used to as a parliamentarian in Rome. Mastella currently only commands one regional party in Campania. But he literally knows everyone in political Rome.
He is a regular in the capital, and likes to accompany his wife – a senator without party affiliation – to the session weeks. Mastella has offered his support to the counted Prime Minister Conte: In order to replace the missing votes of Renzis Italia Viva in the Chamber of Deputies and especially in the Senate, he could forge an informal alliance from the group of non-attached elected representatives in both houses of parliament, which would create a new cabinet Conte guarantee safe majorities. Mastella has already come up with a name for the alliance: “Meglio noi” (Better us).
So far, the experienced majority procurer Mastella has apparently only made slow progress in forging alliances for Conte – and thus also for himself. Usually such negotiations are conducted over the phone or in some other confidential manner, in back rooms in parliament or in coffee bars not far from Palazzo Montecitorio and Palazzo Madama, where the House of Representatives and the Senate are located. Several candidates, whom Mastella had approached under the seal of secrecy, made the unambiguous offers public – and turned them down.
Conte waves it away
Regardless of these setbacks, Mastella continued to be confident on Monday, especially as there were enough votes for Conte in the Senate – in any case, Conte can rely on Mastella’s wife Sandra Lonardo. The most likely scenario is that Conte will get the required simple majority of 149 votes in Tuesday’s vote of confidence.
Because the 18 senators from Italia Viva will abstain, according to Renzi, if Conte asks the vote of confidence in the smaller chamber. This reduces the threshold of votes required for a simple majority to 149. According to media reports, Conte is still at least four votes short of an absolute majority of 161 of the total of 320 votes in the Senate, which is required for relevant legislative proposals. Mastella wants to remain helpful in Rome, although he receives signals from Prime Minister Conte that they do not want his support. Conversely, Mastella seems to need help himself: He wants to apply for a second term in Benevento this year, but has not yet been able to forge an electoral alliance.