Renzi wins Democratic Party leadership, establishing rivalry with Letta, Italy’s prime minister


If Matteo Renzi’s victory yesterday in the leadership contest for Italy’s center-left Partido Democratico (Democratic Party) was widely expected, what happens next is anything but clear. Italy Flag Icon

Though Renzi, the popular 38-year-old mayor of Florence, campaigned (unsuccessfully) to be the prime ministerial candidate of the broad centrosinistra (center-left) coalition just over a year ago on a platform of sweeping generational change within both the Italian left and right, he’s emerged today to a new landscape.

Instead, Italy is governed today by two relatively young politicians — prime minister Enrico Letta (age 47) and deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano (age 43).  The Democratic Party’s previous leader, the colorless Pier Luigi Bersani, stepped down after internal revolts against his preferred choice for Italy’s president (ultimately, Italy’s center-right and center-left coalesced around a second term for the incumbent, Giorgio Napolitano).  The dominant figure of the Italian right for the past two decades, Silvio Berlusconi, was evicted late last month from the Italian Senato (Senate) in connection with his tax fraud conviction, and Alfano and the other center-right ministers in the current coalition government refused to join Berlusconi’s newly rechristened Forza Italia, forming their own alternative Nuovo Centrodestra (New Center-Right).

That’s taken some of the wind out of Renzi’s populist ‘pox-on-both-your-houses’ message, which shares more than a little in common with that of Beppe Grillo’s anti-austerity protest group, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

In essence, Renzi’s victory means that the Italian left now has two leaders — Letta, who leads the coalition government, and Renzi, who will lead the party.  Renzi won’t join Letta’s cabinet, but the two have pledged to work together, even though Renzi often pledged during the leadership contest to push Letta harder to produce tangible reform legislation.  What’s most clear is that the Letta-Renzi rivalry will now become one of the most central dynamics of Italian politics — more so than the recent split between Berlusconi and Alfano on the Italian right.

In many ways, Renzi is becoming for the Italian left what Berlusconi has now become to the Italian right — a key leadership figure who is sufficiently removed from the current coalition government that he can run against the Letta government in the next elections.  Although Berlusconi  formally pulled out of the coalition while Renzi, ostensibly, still supports Letta’s government, both Berlusconi and Renzi (whose populism has caused more than a few comparisons to Berlusconi) will exert significant pressure on Italy’s government from the outside.

Renzi won 68% of the Democratic Party leadership contest on Sunday, defeating both Gianni Cuperlo (18%) and Giuseppe Civati (14%).  Cuperlo, a member of Italy’s Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) whose background lies within the socialist/communist tradition of the Italian left, not the Christian democratic tradition, had the support of Bersani, former prime minister and foreign minister Massimo D’Alema, environmental minister Andrea Orlando, economic development minister Flavio Zanonato and Tuscan regional president Enrico Rossi — a particularly important endorsement, given that Florence is the largest city in Tuscany.  Ultimately, however, it wasn’t enough to stop Renzi, who routinely tops polls as Italy’s most popular politician.

Over 2.5 million party members voted in the election, bolstering Renzi’s claim that he can mobilize broad support for the Democratic Party in advance of Italy’s next elections.

Letta’s incentive is to hold onto power as long as possible in order to enact the kind of economic and labor market reforms that could unlock growth in the depressed Italian economy and make Italian exports more competitive globally, and to enact a new election law following the Italian constitutional court’s ruling last week that the current unwieldy law is unconstitutional.  If Letta continues as prime minister through 2015 and manages to achieve some success, there’s always a chance that Letta could emerge as the centrosinistra‘s standard-bearer — Letta will have demonstrated that his government has accomplished the change that Renzi has only been able to promise.

Renzi’s incentive is for Letta’s unwieldy coalition to hold on just long enough to unite Democratic Party behind Renzi’s leadership, presumably boost the centrosinistra‘s poll numbers, pass a new electoral law, and then head into elections relatively soon if Letta’s coalition fails (as is expected) to enact economic reforms.  The longer it takes for a new election, the more likely it will be that Renzi’s star will fade as he becomes more associated with the Letta government — if the Letta government fails, Renzi risks being tainted with it by association; if the Letta government succeeds, Letta himself will obviously want to become the prime ministerial candidate.

While it’s generally assumed today that Renzi — and not Letta — will lead the centrosinistra into the next Italian elections, Renzi has many enemies within the Democratic Party, including Bersani, D’Alema and much of the old guard who resent Renzi’s attacks on their leadership, as well as union leaders and other old-left stalwarts who fear that Renzi is a liberal ‘third way’ reformist in the mould of former US president Bill Clinton and former UK prime minister Tony Blair.  Renzi, who is more popular with the wider electorate than within the centrosinistra, has called for lower taxes and a more comprehensive approach to economic reform.

Letta and Renzi met in Rome earlier today (pictured above) and, though they claimed that they work well together in a joint statement, it remains obvious to the rest of the world that Letta and Renzi are now more rivals than teammates.  For now, at least, Renzi has ruled out forcing early elections (and it’s not clear that he could mobilize the Democratic Party’s legislators to do so), especially in light of the sudden impetus to enact a new election law. Continue reading Renzi wins Democratic Party leadership, establishing rivalry with Letta, Italy’s prime minister

Anti-incumbent momentum rises with BJP gains in northern Indian regional elections


In what has been billed as the last electoral test before India goes to the polls for national elections later in spring 2014, a series of five regional contests in northern India are being cast as a sign of strong momentum for India’s conservative Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP, भारतीय जनता पार्टी) and for its charismatic leader Narendra Modi.India Flag Icon

Results were released yesterday and today in the five state assembly elections, though regional voting started nearly a month ago on November 11 in Chhattisgarh.

Though commentators are quick to argue that the results are a good sign for the BJP, with the Indian stock market and the Indian rupee surging on news of the BJP victories, it’s important not to confuse an anti-incumbent electorate with an electorate that’s suddenly enthusiastic about a new era of BJP dominance.

Still, the momentum in favor of Modi and the BJP — and against India’s current governing party, the center-left Indian National Congress (Congress, or भारतीय राष्ट्रीय कांग्रेस) — has been growing for quite some time.  Many Indian voters are growing weary of a decade of Congress-led rule under prime minister Manmohan Singh, who has been unable to repeat his success as finance minister in the 1990s, when he enacted a series of liberal economic reforms.  Neither does the Indian electorate seem excited about Rahul Gandhi, who would succeed Singh as prime minister if the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) wins a majority in next spring’s elections.  The Indian economy has slowed significantly over the past three years — GDP growth dived from over 10% in 2010 to under 3% last year (and it’s set to grow just 5% this year).

In that regard, Modi’s massive reelection victory to a third term in December 2012 as Gujarat’s chief minister and Congress’s failure to make a breakthrough in the February 2012 Uttar Pradesh state elections are important goalposts as well.

So what actually happened in the latest round of state assembly elections?

Here’s a map of the five states/territories in play, the three largest of which (Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh) form a wide swath of India’s north-central Hindu heartland.  Unlike in many other Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Kerala, politics in the three north-central states are about as vanilla as Indian politics gets — the state elections were essentially two-party contests between the BJP and Congress.  That made the contests important bellwethers as national elections approach.


So how did the parties do?

The BJP will retain its hold on the state of Madhya Pradesh with a moderately larger majority, giving chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (pictured above) a third consecutive term leading India’s sixth-most populous state.  The BJP will also retain control of Chhattisgarh’s state assembly.  The BJP’s most impressive victory, however, came in Rajasthan, India’s eight-most populous state, where Congress lost 75 seats and the BJP gained 84.

In Delhi, voters also rejected Congress, but not in favor of a majority BJP government.  Instead, voters turned to the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), an anti-corruption party, which fell three seats short of becoming the largest party in Delhi’s assembly, and which now holds the key to Delhi’s new government.

Congress remained in government only in the small far-eastern state of Mizoram.

While the result, on average, is better news for Modi and the BJP than for Congress, the results (with the exception of Rajasthan) don’t necessarily mean a huge BJP wave is coming.  Modi still has two major problems — the first is the hubris of mistaking an anti-incumbent mood for BJP support, and the second is geography.

Nothing demonstrates both problems more than the May 2013 elections in Karnataka state in south-central India. Going into those elections, the BJP had presided over one of India’s most powerful regional economies — Karnataka is home to Bangalore and a booming high-tech economy that has drawn massive amounts of global investment.  While Modi campaigned in Karnataka just as vigorously as he did in the most recent elections, it wasn’t enough to save the incumbent BJP government from a spectacular defeat — the BJP lost 70 of its 110 seats in the Karnataka state assembly.  Though the Karnataka election also featured unique internal BJP fractures, it’s a potent example that voters have been equally brutal against the BJP this year, too.

But Karnataka, as the first major southern state to elect a BJP government, was supposed to be a model for the BJP’s growth outside of its traditional northern heartland.  After this weekend’s election results, the four largest states under BJP control will be Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Modi’s Gujarat, which lies on the coast south of Rajasthan and west of Madhya Pradesh.  In southern and eastern India, the BJP remains a relatively minor political force and, until that changes, Modi will never be able to win an outright BJP majority.  Instead, the best-case scenario for Modi is to build a coalition with regional and other parties through the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the BJP-led coalition alternative to the UPA.

Pushing aside national political considerations, here’s a look at the results on a state-by-state basis. Continue reading Anti-incumbent momentum rises with BJP gains in northern Indian regional elections