Sergio Mattarella, from quiet academic to steely president

Rome (AFP) –


Italy's President Sergio Mattarella faced down the populist parties seeking to form the country's next government, refusing their eurosceptic nominee for economy minister.

His move on Sunday triggered the exit of the prime minister-designate and a fresh political crisis.

The 75-year-old said he did "everything possible" to help form a new government but he refused to bow to what he saw as "diktats" that were contrary to the country's interests.

Mattarella has plenty of experience of high office, having served governments of both left and right in a string of ministerial posts including stints at both defence and education.

During a 25-year parliamentary career he was also the author of a since-amended electoral law that bears his name.

Prior to becoming president in 2015, he had since 2011 been a highly respected judge at the country's constitutional court, picking up the strings from a pre-politics career as a legal academic.

Even now, with his air of a kindly professor, the bespectacled Mattarella appears like someone more cut out for the quiet exchanges of academia than the cut and thrust of politics.

And that is where he may have stayed but for the 1980 Mafia slaying of his elder brother Piersanti by the Cosa Nostra, Sicily's notorius crime syndicate.

The son of one the island's most prominent and influential Christian Democrats, Piersanti rose to become the island's regional president.

But his determination to disrupt the myriad links between his centre-right party and the shadowy world of organised crime was to cost him his life.

- Brother's murder -

As he set off for an epiphany mass on January 6, 1980, he was shot by a gunman as he got into his car. Alerted by his son, Sergio Mattarella was one of the first people on the scene and cradled his dying brother in his arms on the way to hospital. Piersanti did not make it, succumbing to his injuries before they arrived.

All afternoon, Mattarella received people coming to the family home to pay their respects in a shirt still stained with his brother's blood. It was, in effect, his debut in the public eye.

It cannot have been an easy one and since he first entered parliament in 1983, Mattarella has never sought the limelight, content instead to let his work do the talking in the manner of the diligent academic he once was.

"He represents the clean Sicily, the one that paid a terrible price for the island's liberation from criminal forces," the island's current regional president, Rosario Crocetta, said this week.

Critics on the right are not so complimentary. "Yet another 'catto-communista' (communist Catholic)," was the verdict of Northern League leader Matteo Salvini.

Mattarella's reputation for competence and integrity allowed him to rise quickly to senior office, firstly in a series of Christian Democrat-led coalitions.

Always on the left of the party, Mattarella finally turned his back on the right in 1990, when he was one of five ministers who resigned in protest over a new media law that critics said had been tailor-made to suit Silvio Berlusconi's television interests.