The Florentine Versus the Machine

Matteo Renzi


By Connor Phillips.

Italy now has a new government.  Again.  The country has gone through sixty-five different administrations since World War II, only one of which served out its full five-year term.  (That particular government was headed by now-former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was recently expelled from the Senate following convictions for tax fraud, abuse of power, and paying a seventeen-year-old woman for sex.)  It is no wonder that, for many observers, Italian politics is synonymous with corruption, dysfunction, and stagnation.  

The problem goes all the way back to World War II.  Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini effectively eviscerated civil society, and as a result political parties became the main avenue by which citizens could participate in public affairs.  In the postwar era, Italy’s political system was dominated by the centrist Christian Democrats, who held the opposition Communists at arm’s length (aided by free-world governments who feared the Communists coming to power).  As a result of their long tenure in power, the Christian Democrats and their allies essentially became an extension of the state.  Other institutions, such as trade unions and organized crime syndicates, became rich off of their connections with these parties.  As a result, Italy emerged from the postwar period with a government that worked better for powerful organizations than it did for the people it ostensibly served. 

In the early 1990s, Italy was upended by a massive corruption scandal that led to the disgrace and dissolution of every major political party with the exception of the Communists.  Around that time, Berlusconi burst onto the national stage, a former nightclub singer and vacuum cleaner salesman who over the years had built up a business empire that today controls much of Italy’s media (including a newspaper, a publishing company, and three television stations).  Alleging that only he could keep Italy safe from the Communists, he and his right-wing coalition won the 1994 elections.  Ever since, Berlusconi has been the main figure on Italy’s right, facing off against the remnants of the Communists and Christian Democrats, which eventually joined together to form today’s Democratic Party.  

Although Italy’s politics may appear to have evolved into a conventional binary left-right system, they are still highly dysfunctional.  The wide range of ideological viewpoints among both the Democrats and Berlusconi’s coalition have often prevented the development of coherent policy, while the electoral system put into place after the corruption scandal has made it difficult for one party or grouping to gain a governing majority.  Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s never-ending parade of criminal prosecutions, as well as infighting among various factions of his coalition, hampered his effectiveness while in power.  Despite the vast number of criminal claims raised against him, only one—tax fraud—has ever stuck.  The remainder have been foiled by appeals or the statute of limitations, an indication of how litigious and ineffective Italy’s justice system is.  (None of this has stopped Berlusconi from claiming “I am without doubt the person who’s been the most persecuted in the entire history of the world and the history of man.”)  Amid this infighting, corruption continues unabated.  In fact, the most dynamic and effective political movement in recent years has been the Five Star movement of stand-up comic Beppe Grillo, who claims to detest politics so completely that his party’s lawmakers will never cooperate with any of the other established parties. 

If anything, the situation has worsened in recent years—the Italian government has not had an electoral mandate since 2008, the start of Berlusconi’s third term (cut short by his economic mismanagement).  After inconclusive elections in 2013, Italy’s ceremonial president, Giorgio Napolitano, had to cobble together an unwieldy coalition government allying Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party to the Democrats under Enrico Letta.  The government was soon consumed by the struggle to pass a new election law, a top priority after Italy’s Supreme Court declared the current one unconstitutional.  As Letta floundered, Matteo Renzi (above), the mayor of Florence (who did not have a seat in Parliament and had never served in the body before) led a campaign to oust him and take over his coalition, which he accomplished on February 22.  Only 39 years old, Renzi thus became the youngest prime minister in Italian history—beating the previous record holder, Mussolini, by just a few months.

Renzi is now in the unprecedented position of governing Italy as a sitting mayor rather than as a member of parliament.  Unperturbed, he has set himself a lofty goal:  the complete revitalization of Italian society through massive political and economic reforms.  Numerous powerful elements—from left-wing hard-liners in Renzi’s own government to the trade unions that have traditionally backed the Democrats—will likely line up against his reform proposals, making enacting his agenda an uphill battle.  Renzi’s status as a political outsider, however, may in fact help him overcome the established gridlock of the political system.  Already, he has managed to strike a deal with Berlusconi on a new electoral law, a success that suggests that Renzi might have better luck than Letta navigating the corridors of power.

Renzi has also eschewed the political establishment by picking a cabinet composed mostly of experts without much political experience.  With an average age of 47, it is decades younger than most of Italy’s geriatric political class (Berlusconi is 77 and Napolitano 88).  Perhaps this new generation’s lack of connection to the corruption and infighting of the past will enable the Renzi administration to serve as a bridge to the future.  In any case, its composition is consistent with the political side of Renzi’s program:  casting out the “old guard” and starting anew with a centrist, pragmatic Democratic Party that focuses on the people’s priorities rather than ideology. 

This sounds much like what Bill Clinton and Tony Blair did for the American and British left, respectively, in the 1990s.  The difference is that Renzi does not simply face the task of reforming a political party but must also tackle a system riddled with corruption and controlled by established interests.  In this respect, his American analogue might not be Clinton but rather Theodore Roosevelt—another charismatic young reformist who suddenly became chief executive.  As with Roosevelt, Renzi’s best chances probably lie in rallying public support to his side against the old regime.  If he can use the “bully pulpit” to inspire the disillusioned voters who have flocked to the Five Star Movement, he might be able to build true momentum for reform. 

There is ample reason to wish Renzi well.  Italy is in dire need of reform, and has been so for years.  Its economy is no larger than it was in 2000, its public debt is around 120% of GDP, the worst in Europe after Greece, and the impoverished south still lags the north by as much as 40% in GDP per capita.  Its politics are a farce, its judiciary a nightmare, and its treatment of women in public life abysmal (Berlusconi is especially notorious).  By tackling these issues head-on, Renzi promises to bring hope to the people of Italy, the hope that politics can work for them rather than merely serving the interests of a corrupt elite.  If he can, he will have done something truly great, changing the course of the nation for the better.  But as the current American president knows well, it is one thing to promise hope and change and another to deliver.  Renzi has crossed the Rubicon.  It now remains to win his laurels. 

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