26 July 2016

Francesco Cossiga - Italy's 8th President

Political career overshadowed by Moro murder

Francesco Cossiga served Italy as both Prime Minister and President
Francesco Cossiga
Former Italian President Francesco Cossiga was born on this day in 1928 in the Sardinian city of Sassari.

Cossiga, a Christian Democrat who had briefly served as Prime Minister under his predecessor, Sandro Pertini, held the office for seven years from 1985 to 1992. He was the eighth President of the Republic.

His presidency was unexceptional until the last two years, when he gained a reputation for controversial comments about the Italian political system and former colleagues.

It was during this time that another heavyweight of the Italian political scene, Giulio Andreotti, revealed the existence during the Cold War years of Gladio, a clandestine network sponsored by the American secret services and NATO that was set up amid fears that Italy would fall into the hands of Communists, either through military invasion from the East or, within Italy, via the ballot box.

Cossiga, said to have been obsessed with espionage, admitted to have been involved with the creation of Gladio in the years immediately following the end of the Second World War.

This led to renewed speculation surrounding the kidnap and murder of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978, an event that prevented a vote in the Italian parliament on the so-called 'historic compromise' whereby the Italian Communist Party, which was riding a peak of popularity at a time in which Italy seemed especially vulnerable to social unrest, would be given a direct role in government for the first time.

The event was a key moment in Cossiga's political career. As interior minister - effectively home secretary - in an Andreotti-led government, Cossiga was in charge of the operation to find and free Moro during the 55 days he was held captive.  He received a personal plea from Moro to negotiate with his captors, the ultra left-wing group Red Brigades, but the government's stance was not to talk with terrorists and Moro's pleas were ignored.

When Moro's body was discovered in the boot of a car parked almost exactly halfway between the Rome headquarters of the Christian Democrats and the Italian Communists, Cossiga rushed to the scene immediately and resigned the following day, declaring himself to be "politically dead".  Yet he returned within a year to be Prime Minister, his 14-month stint coinciding with another event that shook the Italian nation, when a bomb supposedly planted by terrorists from the extreme right killed 85 people at Bologna railway station.

Francesco Cossiga (right) pictured with Giulio Andreotti shortly after the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro
Francesco Cossiga (right) pictured with Giulio Andreotti
shortly after the kidnap and murder of Aldo Moro
The Gladio revelations re-opened debate over the Moro affair, particularly over the question of how the authorities never located the Rome apartment where he was held, despite numerous tip-offs. As President, Cossiga survived an attempt by the Democratic Party of the Left to have him impeached but resigned in 1992, two months before his term of office was due to end.

Italy had no government at the time following the collapse of a third coalition led by Andreotti but Cossiga said he was unwilling to approve any more coalitions if he did not think they could tackle the problems of debt and organised crime, or prepare Italy adequately for monetary and political union with Europe.

He did not disappear from politics. By the late 1990s, he had formed his own small centrist party, the Democratic Union of the Republic, which he hoped might pull together the various strands of Italy's centre-right. However, the party was dissolved in 1999.

Thus ended a political career that had begun with Cossiga's election to the Italian parliament as a deputy for Sassari in 1958.

Although his father was a director in a bank, politics was in the family. One of his cousins was Enrico Berlinguer, who would later become secretary-general of Italy's Communist Party, and he was related to another former Prime Minister born in Sassari, Antonio Segni.  He joined the Christian Democrats aged only 16.

After his election he quickly scaled the Christian Democrat ladder, serving as Under-Secretary for Defence from 1966 to 1970, and in 1974 taking the unlikely brief of a roving minister charged with reforming government bureaucracy.  He became Interior Minister in 1976.

In 1960, he married Giuseppa Sigurani, from whom he was divorced in 1998. They had two children, Anna Maria, a writer, and Giuseppe, who followed his father into politics, serving as junior minister for defence in Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia-led government between 2008 and 2011.

Cossiga senior suffered from depression in his later years.  He died in 2010 aged 82, following cardiovascular problems.

Sassari's elegant Piazza d'Italia lit up by night
Sassari's elegant Piazza d'Italia lit up by night
Travel tip:

Sassari, the second largest city in Sardinia with a population of 275,000 in the metropolitan area, is rich in art, culture and history, notable for beautiful palaces and elegant neoclassical architecture, examples of which can be found around Piazza d'Italia.  Also worth seeing are the Teatro Civico and the Fountain of the Rosello.

Travel tip:

Sardinia's white, sandy beaches and blue seas make it one of the most popular summer holiday destinations for Italian families as well as visitors from overseas, and is particularly crowded in August, when the population of many mainland cities decamp almost en masse for the cool of the mountains or the lure of the sea.  The Costa Smeralda, to the north-east of the island, remains a celebrity haunt and is consequently expensive, but there are plenty of less developed areas where the beaches are just as good.

(Photo of Francesco Cossiga courtesy of the Presidency of the Italian Republic)
(Photo of Piazza d'Italia in Sassari by Enigmatico27 CC BY-SA 3.0)

More reading:

How Enrico Berlinguer turned Italy's communists into a political force

The Red Brigades and the tragedy of Aldo Moro

Antonio Gramsci - Sardinian founder of the Italian Communist Party


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