Testing the Prime Minister’s Mettle

Open any Italian newspaper or magazine—any, really— and you will struggle to find a good word about Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who, aged 39, became the youngest head of government in national history in 2014.

In October 2015, twenty months into his top job, international commentators were still enthralled by him. “Renzi is second only to Angela Merkel in being the continent’s most impressive politician,” the New Statesman’s Daniel Elton wrote.

Little did they know that the tsunami of domestic dissent was quickly gathering momentum. The prime minister’s once sky-high popularity had begun to decrease well before last autumn. Perhaps the Italian media have just been doing their job all along: keeping governments accountable.

After two and a half years in charge (Italy’s fourth longest serving government since 1946) and despite all criticisms, Renzi is still hanging on in there. What are the dissenters contesting then? How effective is their opposition?

Critics inside his center-left Democratic party (PD) are rather vociferous. PD is like an upside-down version of Labour in Britain: it is led by a rampant Blairite (Renzi), the opposite of Marxist Jeremy Corbyn, yet both outfits bleed from an internal split. PD and Labour bravely show everyone a stiff upper-lip. Giggling political hyenas have nonetheless sniffed a rotten smell.

Among those licking their whiskers in expectation is the Five Star movement, who view the prime minister as the continuation of a muchhated past. Surprisingly, there is not much dissent from the right, aside from the occasional jibe. Italy’s conservatism, these days, is still struggling to find a pivotal point after the end of the Silvio Berlusconi era. Many among its past electorate now support Five Star.

You would be wrong to think that Berlusconi was now out of the picture. Corriere della Sera reports he is talking to Five Star to put pressure on Renzi to change the current electoral system, one the insurgent movement could strangely benefit from in 2018 (at the last nationwide local elections Five Star made the most of the new electoral system, winning all the runoffs). How far talks will go remains unclear. For the time being, the opposition looks much divided. Five Star always plays hard to get.

Right from the outset, you could sense the air was negatively charged for Renzi. At first, he was accused of “illegitimately” holding the prime ministerial post. It was argued that he came to power as the result of party strife, not via a general election. Apart from cabinet members, supporters of Renzi are few and far between. One wonders how he manages to carry on. Is PD more solid than the media portray it?

Looking closely, Renzi’s legitimacy proved genuine. Bersani won the center-left coalition primary elections; Renzi was second (60.9 percent against 39.1). In the February 2013 general elections the PD-led center-left coalition won a narrow absolute majority in the lower house but failed to gain a majority in the Senate. Bersani said he would try to form a government with the informal support of Five Star. By mid-March, there was no way Bersani could strike a deal with the insurgent grassroots movement, which by now was holding the balance of power after February’s inconclusive elections. On April 19, Bersani announced his resignation as PD leader after Romano Prodi failed to secure a parliamentary majority in the presidential election. Enrico Letta was picked to replace him. Keeping the swashbuckling Renzi at bay became increasingly unsustainable.

His markedly Catholic, center-of-politics past irked PD’s old intelligentsia (including Bersani, who meanwhile suffered a brain hemorrhage), made up of former communists and trade union leaders. Renzi’s age held him back too. Remember this is Italy: up until the mid-90s leaders were either all bald or grey-haired; then Silvio Berlusconi came on the scene and fake hair rejuvenated the landscape a bit; finally, the young arrived. Perhaps to stay.

All this was just the very beginning. Consider: Renzi’s party is the heir of both Social Democratic and Christian Democratic traditions. That way, PD has always faced opposition from a growing far-right as well as brazen anti-systemic populists. Internally, traditional social democrats viewed Renzi’s curtailing of trade union rights in the Jobs Act as irreconcilable (some indeed abandoned PD to set up Sinistra Italiana, or the Italian Left party) and many liberals (who prefer taxation of wealth over that of work, consumption, or investment) found Renzi’s plans to abolish Italy’s tax on first properties hard to stomach.

Critics then attacked Renzi’s way of communicating. It was deemed aggressive, intimidating, and arrogantly dismissive of any constructive observations. “Who was that politician who [like Renzi] … used to rule his own party with a rod of iron leaving free rein to local [party] bosses? Who better than anyone else made the most of television communication and fretted about it a lot?” asked Bologna University professor Piero Ignazi L’Espresso readers a year ago. It was Bettino Craxi he referred to, the Socialist party leader commonly viewed as the worst politician ever.

Yet, Renzi’s opponents are no less belligerent. As recently as September 14, Five Star Luigi Di Maio likened Renzi’s conduct to that of “Pinochet in Venezuela [sic].” Di Maio got the country wrong, but his outrageous remark somehow reflected the way many see the flamboyant head of government: too bossy. (Interestingly enough, Frederika Randall, the Italian correspondent for The Nation, recently wrote that in the country were Fascism was founded, if there is a party resembling the one set up by Benito Mussolini then it is precisely Five Star.)

Renzi has earned such a reputation not only with despotic language on Twitter and Facebook, but also through the combined effect of a new electoral system and the forthcoming reforms to the Constitution, which are to be voted on December 4. These aim at turning the Senate into a leaner assembly of local-government representatives with limited powers; passing legislation would be easier.

The two houses of the Italian Parliament are practically equal at present. Renzi and Maria Elena Boschi, the minister for constitutional reforms, would like to “emasculate” the Senate, cutting the membership from 300 to 100, and to stop direct elections.

The new “Italicum” voting system is seen by Five Star, small parties, and further-to-theleft PD members alike as curtailing democracy. Andrea Giorgis, professor of Constitutional law and a PD MP, told La Repubblica: “The Italicum electoral law is similar to the Calderoli law, after all, and this is a concern shared by many.” The Calderoli electoral law from 2005 was also derogatively known as “Porcellum” for being messy. After being in place for eight years, the Constitutional Court finally declared it unconstitutional.

Renzi, sarcastically nicknamed by the press as “il rottamatore” (the scrap merchant – for wanting to take everything to the scrap yard and put revolutionary methods through at dizzying speed), has lately given in a bit and is open to discussion about tweaking the Italicum. The Constitutional Court is meanwhile weighing up Italicum’s legitimacy and, to avoid political speculations, will pronounce its verdict on October 4; it decided to postpone its pronouncement and wait for the 26 September, which is when the government would announce the date for the constitutional referendum.

The postponement by the Constitutional Court, Giorgis emphasized, does not lessen any misgivings many have about the electoral law: “It would be good for the country if those concerns were resolved before the referendum. Even former President [of the Republic] Giorgio Napolitano has suggested reconsidering some aspects and trying to overcome such widespread concerns.”

Whereas Italicum has been heavily criticized, constitutional reforms have met an even harsher barrage of fire from every conceivable corner, including the national association of WWII partisans, the spiritual fathers of the seventy-year-old liberal republic. As it stands, a resounding No to the reforms is very much on the cards.

Foreign observers fear plebiscitary rejection, a sentiment occasionally giving way to old prejudices. BBC’s Mark Mardell wrote that “Italy is a complex conundrum within a cliché. In all its tottering from one emergency to another, for all its much-derided economic weakness, the idea of the dolce vita remains strong.”

Constructive remarks came instead from both the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal: reforms are of paramount importance to unblock a lethargic parliament, whose intricacies force legislation to be sieved from one house through the other until the wording is finally given the green light. The US Ambassador to Italy John Phillips and the rating agency Fitch have lately reinforced this message: Italy needs reforms to attract foreign investment.

With unemployment at 12 percent, a catastrophic public debt of €2,248.8bn (a noose around the neck of future generations), and endemic corruption, the Mediterranean peninsula is hardly a paragon of virtue. Being smug and sneering at foreign offers would be suicidal, also in the context of fiscal dumping practices which the EU is unable to do anything about. Something ought to be done. Is leaving the eurozone, as Five Star wants Italy to do, an option?

Criticism is easily dished-out, but alternatives are thin on the ground. No-one bar Renzi’s government is proposing anything other than simplistic measures. With constructive critique from abroad deemed as interfering, Italy’s future does not look good. Populism, the all-powerful prism of today’s Zeitgeist, could throw all hope of reforming the country into the bonfire of many vanities.

That being said, it is undeniable that in any functioning democracy, governments are kept on their toes. In the light of this, all of the above could even reassure observers: Italian democracy, despite the country’s chronic ills, is still working.

There is room for optimism. Especially now that Renzi seems to have finally realized what the thorn in his side is about: the simultaneity of the constitutional referendum and the electoral law. The prime minister has understood that the latter has to be changed before the former takes place. “Binding the electoral law to a second ballot is a very bad mistake,” Eugenio Scalfari noted in La Repubblica. “It is equally wrong to introduce preferential votes, as tied up as they are with lobbies and clienteles, often of Mafia origin – very rotten.”

Scalfari thought that “a democratic electoral law can only be based on a proportional system.” He then ventured to hypothesize what could happen if Italicum were left unchanged. “In Five Star you’ve got voters who come from the left, center, and right, plus many others who abstained from voting. That movement has no program and it only wants to grab power. With a second ballot it could get it. Would that be an acceptable result? A healthy one for the country? For Europe? For the common currency?”

In Scalfari’s view—one that certainly has reverberated in Palazzo Chigi—Renzi must botch the second ballot and change Italicum into a proportional system. Subsequently, it would be the government’s job to build suitable alliances via a manifesto written by a great center-left party. The most famous pen in Italian journalism finally argues that the current government should increase its center-left sentiment and forge allies with other moderates, providing these are democratic and committed pro-Europeanists.

Will the prime minister listen to the words of wisdom from people like Scalfari—who has lived more than twice as long as Renzi and has seen it all in Italian politics—and accept compromise on the electoral law?

L’Espresso maintained in early September that Renzi’s swaggering tones have calmed down after the dramatic Central Italy earthquake of late August. A new season has begun: the widening gap between government and voters is set to shrink again. As it stands, it is impossible to guess whether this new trend will help Renzi.

It is crucial that Renzi reflects deeply about modifying Italicum. If his overall package of reforms goes through as it is, it could make it easier for Five Star to win an outright majority. An anti-establishment party is likely to gather votes from the left in a play-off with the right and vice versa, as Renzi has lately realized.

Next year we will all watch the all-important elections in France and Germany. Yet, it is Italy that could upset the rickety EU applecart; either that or send Brussels and patronizing critics alike a strong signal borne out of renewed confidence in itself. Italy does not revel in Schadenfreude like others do. How good it would be if a few were to eat their hats. On referendum day, that is what many Italians will likely think in the ballot box. But how many?

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