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ROME (AP) — Italy’s president, who is holding and playing a key card in the nation’s fast-evolving political crisis, was a timid law professor abruptly thrust into public life when the Mafia gunned down his brother on a Sicilian street in 1980.

In the decades since, Sergio Mattarella has developed a reputation as a principled politician who has transformed what was viewed as a mainly ceremonial office into the dynamic role of defender of Italy’s place in Europe.

Mattarella, 76, a former parliamentary law professor and Constitutional Court jurist, came under verbal attack this week from his country’s populist politicians — and citizens who want them to take power. They allege the president is thwarting the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box on March 4.

Earlier this week, Luigi Di Maio, who leads Parliament’s largest party, the euro-skeptic 5-Star Movement, raised the specter of impeaching Mattarella. The threat came after the president refused to submit to populist demands to appoint, as economy minister, an advocate of a backup plan for Italy’s exit from the euro currency.

Mattarella stood his ground, as did Di Maio and fellow populist Matteo Salvini, who demanded the euroskeptic economy minister be part of what would have been the nation’s first populist government. As head of state, the president has constitutional authority to name the premier and approve new ministers.

His refusal to bow to pressure reflects his character and courage of convictions, those who have followed Mattarella’s career say.

Mattarella is someone “with strong, deep values,” said Sergio Fabbrini, director of the school of government at Rome’s private LUISS university. “His family was a bourgeois family that stood up to the Mafia and refused to compromise” with the powerful organization based in Sicily.

In his native Palermo, Mattarella and his family were ready for Epiphany Day Mass in 1980, when his older brother, Piersanti, then governor of Sicily, was assassinated in his car on one of the city’s most elegant streets. Sergio Mattarella rushed to the car, cradling his brother, still breathing, in his arms.

Until that moment, the future president “had been a shy law professor,” said Paolo Pagliaro, an Italian journalist. “That day signaled the start of the public life of Sergio Mattarella.”

Three years later, Mattarella entered Parliament. In some ways, he seemed the classic Christian Democrat, stressing moderation and compromise. His politics tilted toward the center-left.

But as he climbed the political ladder, Mattarella also left no doubt that on some matters, there could be no compromise.

In 1990, he quit his post as education minister to protest a law that helped to pave the way for Silvio Berlusconi to assemble a media empire, including all three of Italy’s main private TV networks.

That decade saw the main political parties, including the Christian Democrats, swept from power by the Clean Hands corruption probes.

“All the public institutions were shaken. The only institution that guaranteed the state was the president of the Republic,” Fabbrini said in a telephone interview.

The head of state is elected by Parliament and serves a seven-year term.

The new prestige translated into a growing role for Italy’s head of state, which developed into “a sort of guarantor of internal equilibrium and the reference point for European politics,” he said.

Thus, Mattarella, who was serving as a Constitutional Court judge before being elected president in 2015, not only defends the 1948 Constitution, but European constitution as well, said Fabbrini.

Mattarella’s willingness to accommodate different viewpoints — but also to draw lines he won’t cross — ultimately played out in the current political crisis.

In rebuffing the populists’ demands, Mattarella evoked a sense of justice, describing how the markets’ turmoil was eroding Italians savings and driving up business loan costs.

The populist narrative, Fabbrini said, depicts institutions like the presidency as “the bastion of the elite” and the “enemy of the people.”

In a critical moment, Mattarella crafted an alternative narrative.


Frances D’Emilio is on twitter at