(Bloomberg) -- Giorgio Napolitano, the former Italian president and one-time communist who helped restore market confidence in the country’s finances in 2011 during Europe’s sovereign debt crisis, has died. He was 98.
Napolitano died on Friday at the Salvator Mundi hospital in Rome, according to newswire Ansa, which did not immediately give a cause of death. Ansa had reported earlier this month that Napolitano had been taken to the hospital.
The current president, Sergio Mattarella, said in a statement of condolence that Napolitano “promoted the strengthening of community institutions for an increasingly authoritative and united Europe.”
Napolitano served for decades in the lower house of parliament and as a government minister before being elected president in 2006. Though the post is largely ceremonial, Napolitano emerged as a key Italian contact for world leaders such as then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy during the debt crisis, when Italy was teetering on the brink of default.
As then-Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s majority unraveled amid plummeting investor confidence, Napolitano sounded out Italy’s political and business elites to build a consensus on the country’s future. Berlusconi resigned on Nov. 12, 2011, and Mario Monti, a former European Union commissioner, was sworn in four days later. The 10-year Italian bond yield fell from almost 7% at the time to less than 2% three years later.
Amid a political deadlock, Napolitano reluctantly agreed to a second seven-year term in 2013 — the first Italian president to be re-elected. (The precedent was repeated with his successor, Sergio Mattarella.) Napolitano chose Florence Mayor Matteo Renzi to become Italy’s youngest-ever prime minister in 2014 and frequently consulted with him on ways to spur Italy out of its economic doldrums.
He had a constant stream of visitors to the Quirinale presidential palace in central Rome, including Pope Francis in 2013 and US President Barack Obama in 2014. Napolitano resigned in early 2015 but retained the title senator for life, an honor he was granted in 2005.
With his fluent English, he helped promote Italy and Europe with books and lectures, including a two-week US tour in 1978 in which he spoke of the “interdependence of Europe,” according to a summary in the New York Times.
“European history has also crossed through dark periods and shown negative sides, but there is a unifying thread — that is the great European culture,” Napolitano said in an interview with public broadcaster RAI in 2014.
Napolitano helped publish Marxist writings as a member of the anti-Fascist resistance during World War II. Decades later, as president, he defended the market economy and backed a call by the employers’ lobby Confindustria to make economic growth a pillar of state policy alongside fiscal rigor.
That kind of pragmatism led former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to call him “my favorite communist,” Napolitano told the Corriere della Sera newspaper in a 2001 interview.
The president’s political journey “must be put into the context of the anti-Fascist resistance and postwar Italy,” Riccardo Barbieri, who was the chief European economist at Mizuho International Plc in London, said in 2011. Napolitano was “the leading figure in the reformist wing of the Italian Communist Party and a believer in a transition to a social-democratic position.”
Born on June 29, 1925, in Naples, Napolitano was the son of an attorney. He joined the Communist Party in 1945 “for moral and cultural reasons,” one of many young people “starved intellectually by fascism,” according to a 2008 profile in Le Monde Diplomatique.
He earned a law degree from Naples University in 1947, with a dissertation on political economy. He was elected to the Italian parliament for the first time in 1953 and, with the exception of the 1963 election, was re-elected in the Naples constituency until 1996, according to the website of the Italian president.
After Warsaw Pact soldiers crushed the 1956 anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary, killing some 3,000 people, Napolitano defended officials in Moscow, claiming the crackdown not only halted a “counter-revolution, but contributed to world peace,” according to a 2006 article in Corriere della Sera.
In 1969, Napolitano helped lead a partial break by Western Europe’s largest communist party away from Kremlin hardliners, amid criticism of the Soviet Union’s decision to put down Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring movement the year before.
Napolitano helped write his party’s statement of “profound disagreement” over the invasion, while still expressing solidarity with the Soviet Union, Victor Zaslavsky, a historian at LUISS University in Rome, wrote in a 2008 book.
‘Man of the Year’
He became more involved with European politics, serving as a member of the European Parliament and the North Atlantic Assembly, as the NATO Parliamentary Assembly used to be called.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Italian Communists eventually became the Democrats of the Left and later merged into the center-left Democratic Party.
More than 40 years after the Prague Spring, Napolitano again found himself seeking a “third way” for Italian politics. As Berlusconi’s majority crumbled and investors dumped the country’s debt, the president began seeking new options amid a worsening sovereign-debt crisis.
The Italian version of Wired magazine named him its man of the year for 2011. At 86, “Napolitano has demonstrated surprising speed in the last twelve months in remaining connected to reality, in a word, ‘wired,’” it wrote.
His support of the Confindustria economic position, a tacit criticism of then-Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti’s austerity-only approach, came as he stepped up talks with various Italian power brokers.
Monti, a non-partisan technocrat who had pushed the idea of pairing “growth with rigor” in a series of columns in the Corriere, cited Napolitano in four of the articles, ending an op-ed piece by quoting the president’s appeal for Italians to join “a common cause” for the good of their country.
Berlusconi, a conservative media mogul who entered politics in 1994, often railed against communists, saying they were still a threat to the country long after the Soviet Union collapsed. While Berlusconi always had publicly cordial ties with Napolitano, he made no secret of his opinion of the former communist, saying in 2009 that “you know which side he’s on.”
In 1959, Napolitano married Clio Bittoni, a fellow graduate in law from the University of Naples, who specialized in labor and agricultural law, according to the presidential website. They had two sons, Giovanni and Giulio.
--With assistance from Flavia Krause-Jackson and John Follain.
(Adds quote from President Mattarella in third paragraph.)
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