Italy Elects President, While Mulling a Change in Role

ROME — Italian lawmakers on Saturday elected Sergio Mattarella, a veteran politician and constitutional court judge, as the country’s president, a post that is expected to be redefined during his tenure.

Mr. Mattarella was elected by lawmakers from both houses of Parliament and regional delegates on the third day of voting, when only a simple majority was needed, instead of the two-thirds required in the early votes. He won 665 votes out of a possible 1,009, signaling wide consensus across the political spectrum.

His election is also a political victory for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had sponsored Mr. Mattarella’s candidacy and asked his cantankerous party, and his broad coalition, to back his choice.

Applause erupted among the lawmakers when Mr. Mattarella reached the 505 votes he needed to secure his victory.

“First and foremost, my thoughts go to the difficulties and hopes of our citizens; that is enough,” Mr. Mattarella said after his election. He will be sworn in on Tuesday.

What remains to be seen is whether Mr. Renzi has lost the support of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose party has been an ally of the government as it has tried to push through institutional reforms. Mr. Berlusconi had protested that Mr. Renzi was imposing his choice on his allies, rather than reaching out to them to find a consensus candidate.

Although Mr. Mattarella, 73, has been on the political stage for many years, he has remained mostly out of the limelight, Italian media commentators noted as they struggled to find television footage, even recent photographs, of the reserved politician.

“Renzi is all action, visibility and communication. Mattarella, on the other hand, doesn’t speak often, and when he does, he does as an intellectual, his thoughts can’t be contained in a tweet,” said Marco Damilano, a political commentator for the newsweekly L’Espresso.

“Mattarella has been described as gray, but it’s the hue of probity, and for this reason he was an ideal choice for Renzi” in a moment when Italy’s political system is changing, Mr. Damilano said.

Institutional reforms being debated in Parliament propose giving voters a greater say in electing the prime minister, who under the current constitutional rules, is appointed by the president. “Renzi envisions a system where the prime minister has the direct support of voters, and the reins of power, and the president as being more representative of Italians,” Mr. Damilano said. Mr. Mattarella, he added, is seen as well suited for that role.

But reforms under discussion to change the electoral law and the makeup of Parliament are leaning toward reinforcing the executive branch, which could create potential conflicts for a president, who under the Constitution has the right to dissolve Parliament and name a prime minister.

With the new electoral law, “people expect to choose the head of the government,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political analyst at the Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome. “So what happens if he is removed because of an internal party coup, or the majority party splits, and a new government is formed with different political parties? What will be the role of the president? If everything goes smoothly, there’s no problem, but if it doesn’t, then the role of the president will be tricky.”

Mr. Mattarella was born in Palermo, Sicily, in 1941 and went on to study law. His older brother, Piersanti, who was the governor of the Sicily region, was killed by the Mafia in 1980.

Mr. Mattarella was first elected to office in 1983 as a member of the Christian Democratic Party, which dominated postwar Italy until it imploded after a series of bribery scandals in the early 1990s. He went on to hold a number of high-level government posts under the Christian Democrats and in later center-left governments. He served in Parliament until 2008. In 2011, he was elected by Parliament to Italy’s Constitutional Court.

Mr. Mattarella’s victory came without much of the high drama that normally exists during Italy’s presidential elections, including the settling of scores and horse-trading. Two years ago, this Parliament was unable to break a deadlock as it tried to elect a successor to President Giorgio Napolitano at the end of his seven-year term. Mr. Napolitano, now 89, agreed to stay on temporarily. He resigned this month, citing his advanced age.