Tag Archives: berlusconi

What to expect from Italy’s new government

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Far from a rupture, Italy will get more of the same under its new prime minister Paolo Gentiloni. (AFP / Getty)

Consider Italy’s new government renzismo without Renzi.

A week after Matteo Renzi failed, in spectacular measure, in his efforts to win Italian voter approval of his ill-fated referendum on political reform, Italy has a new prime minister after consultations between Renzi, other political leaders and Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

With no more than 15 months (and likely far less) until the next general election, Italy’s new premier Paolo Gentiloni will lead a government that looks much like the one Renzi led until last week — one dominated by the centrist and reformist wing of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Given that the Democrats and their centrist allies retain a majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Camera dei deputati (Chamber of Deputies), it was almost certain that Mattarella would appoint someone from the Italian left. It was not certain that Mattarella would turn to a Renzi ally, however, given the longstanding tradition of non-partisan ‘technocratic’ governments in Italian politics. Still, Gentiloni was a colorless Roman aristocrat with an undistinguished political career until his sudden ascent to foreign minister two years ago. He replaced Federica Mogherini, who departed Renzi’s government in 2014 to serve as the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Today, Mogherini remains a rising star who may yet eclipse even Renzi from her perch as Europe’s top diplomat.

Gentiloni, who hails from Roman nobility, began his career in journalism, switching to politics in the 1990s as an ally of Francesco Rutelli, a former centrist mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001. Both of them served in the short-lived government of Romano Prodi from 2006 to 2008; Rutelli as deputy prime minister and culture minister, Gentiloni as communications minister. In the center-left primary to determine the party’s candidate in the 2013 Roman mayoral election, Gentiloni finished in third place with just 14% of the vote.

Despite strong marks for his time as foreign minister, no one expects Gentiloni to remain prime minister longer than the next election, no matter who wins.

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RELATED: Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world
for Italy or the EU

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Gentiloni, instead, looks more like a caretaker who will lead the government through rough months ahead while Renzi licks his wounds back home in Florence and prepares for the next election.

Perhaps most consequentially for Europe (and global markets), Gentiloni’s cabinet retains Renzi’s finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan, himself seen as a potential successor to Renzi. Other key ministers retained include defence minister Roberta Pinotti and justice minister Andrea Orlando, while Angelino Alfano, previously interior minister, will assume Gentiloni’s new role as foreign minister.

Italian banks on the brink

With his confidante running the government, Matteo Renzi is now free to start crafting his own political comeback from the sidelines. (Facebook)

Gentiloni and Padoan will turn most immediately to efforts to calm markets about Italy’s tottering banks and, in particular, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).  Increasingly, it seems likely that the bank, the world’s oldest (dating back to 1492, will require a bailout from the government, potentially angering taxpayers. Potentially, the government might also require a ‘bail-in’ of the bank’s investors, potentially angering Italy’s capital class. Other Italian banks in need of capitalization may come in for the same treatment. Essentially, Italian banks today find themselves in much the same position as American banks in 2009 — undercapitalized and sitting on far too many non-performing loans. While the U.S. bailout in 2008 and 2009 was far from popular, in today’s climate, in a country like Italy, where joblessness and listless (or negative) growth have become endemic, a bailout could be far more toxic.

Renzi may believe that, by leaving such unpopular steps to Gentiloni and Padoan, he can emerge later in 2017 or 2018 for a comeback — not unlike Silvio Berlusconi, himself forced from office twice, despite dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades.

That may be too clever by half. Continue reading What to expect from Italy’s new government

Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world — for Italy or the EU

Prime ministry Matteo Renzi is resigning after losing a key referendum on reforming Italy's political institutions.
Prime minister Matteo Renzi is resigning after losing a key referendum on reforming Italy’s political institutions.

 

The xenophobic leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League), Matteo Salvini, jubilantly Tweeted out a message last night as it looked increasingly like the government’s referendum on reforming Italian political institution would fail: Italy Flag Icon

‘Long live Trump. Love live Putin, long live Le Pen and long live the League.’

So much for dog whistles.

Salvini, and the increasingly illiberal and populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo, founded in 2009 as an anti-austerity platform, want to use the referendum’s failure as proof that their vision.

Don’t let them.

Beware anyone, in fact, who claims that there’s a single, clear message from Matteo Renzi’s spectacular failure Sunday night. It’s a lot more nuanced than the message Salvini and Grillo are projecting, that some rising populism of the right has now beat back the elites. Far from it. Remember, even The Economist opposed  a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. The opposition also included the center-right Forza Italia, now weaker but still headed by Silvio Berlusconi; former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, a former European commissioner; Pier Luigi Bersani, the informal leader of the old-guard Italian left that had always been wary of Renzi; and democratic socialists like Nichi Vendola, the former regional president of Puglia.

The measure failed by a margin of 59.11% to 40.89%. Only three regions — Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany and Trentino-South Tyrol — voted yes.  Continue reading Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world — for Italy or the EU

What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)
Interim president Michel Temer was booed at the opening ceremony for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games. (Facebook)

Given ancient Rome’s delight in all things Hellenistic, it’s perhaps surprising that it took until 1960 for the Italian capital to win its turn hosting the Summer Olympic Games.brazilItaly Flag Icon

Those 1960 Games, however, showcased a Rome that, in barely more than a decade, rose from the ashes of World War II’s devastation. Under the guidance of U.S. and western allies and under the aegis of the Catholic, conservative Democrazia Cristiana (Christian Democrats), the 1960 Games forecast a competent and determined Italy that would, for the next three decades, leap forward economically in surprising and creative ways.

Though Italy today seems often trapped in sclerotic and tradition-bound ways, it wasn’t outlandish to say that Italy in 1960 was still a country of the future.  

That evergreen label, too, is affixed to Brazil. It’s the country of the future, the old chestnut goes… and it always will be.

When Rio de Janeiro was awarded the Olympic Games in 2009, it looked like that future, always just beyond the horizon, was finally within reach. In 2010, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva marked the last of eight years in power. With GDP growth of 7.5%, the frothiest Brazilian economy in a quarter-century, and with extreme poverty nearly eliminated across Brazil through a series of social welfare, transfer and educational programs, it was a victory lap for a figure who had become the most mythic colossus of the Latin American left. Though Brazil’s 2010 boom was part of a short-lived emerging economies bubble, things were still looking up for Brazil as recently as 2014, when Lula da Silva’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, narrowly won reelection – the fourth consecutive term for the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), defeating both Marina Silva, a charismatic third-way economic leftist and evangelical Christian who would have been Brazil’s first leader of African descent, and conservative Aécio Neves, a telegenic and well-regarded senator and successful former governor of Minas Gerais.

Even then, it was still possible to regard the historic 2016 Games, the first to be held in South America, as notice that at long last, Brazil would be a country of the present. Instead, the country today is in political and economic crisis. Far from announcing Brazil as a major economic power, the Rio Games themselves have become a symbol of economic inequality and government misrule. At best, they have been an opportunity (as much for Brazilians as for Trump-weary and Clinton-fatigued Americans) to forget politics for two weeks.   Continue reading What Italy’s Tangentopoli in 1992 political trauma can teach Brazil in 2016

Rome elects Raggi, Five Star Movement candidate, as first female mayor

Virginia Raggi hopes to become the most influential Five Star Movement activist on Sunday by winning Rome's mayoral election.
Virginia Raggi hopes to become the most influential Five Star Movement activist on Sunday by winning Rome’s mayoral election.

Fifty-four years after Amma Magnani starred in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s classic Mamma Roma, redefining feminism for Romans and Italians alike, the Eternal City is getting what centuries of imperial and papal rule never allowed — a woman in charge.Italy Flag Iconrome

Say what you will about her, unlike Magnani and unlike the founder of her party, Beppe Grillo, Virginia Raggi is no comedian.

For a movement that has sometimes suffered by the fact that its most prominent leader and founder is Grillo, a comic-turned-politician, it now enters a phase where it will be judged by governance, and not just politics. The protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) emerged in Italian politics in the 2013 parliamentary elections as an anti-austerity and anti-eurozone force, drawing votes from the remnants of Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right coalition as well as disenchanted leftist voters.

The Five Star Movement controls 91 seats in the 630-member lower house of Italy’s parliament, the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies), where its role has chiefly been to throw sand at both the Italian right and the dominant Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) of prime minister Matteo Renzi.

That will all change after Sunday, when Rome’s (and Turin’s) voters elected two women affiliated with the Five Star Movement, giving it the opportunity to mature into a new role — a functional party of municipal government.

The 32-year-old Chiara Appendino has won a runoff to become the next mayor of the northern industrial city of Turin, but the real prize is Rome, where Virginia Raggi has easily won a runoff against Democratic Party challenger Roberto Giachetti to become the Italian capital’s first female mayor. It is also, by far, the most high-profile electoral success of the Five Star Movement to date.

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Rome, home to nearly 2.9 million people, is the European Union’s fourth-largest city after London, Berlin and Madrid. But successive governments have left voters angry, just about everything — roads are worn, public transportation chugs along slowly and trash often goes uncollected. Residents have been dreaming for decades of a third line for the city’s burdened two-line subway system, but construction has stalled under each of the last two administrations.

The last elected mayor, Ignazio Marino, a novice in Italian politics and a former transplant surgeon, resigned in disgrace late last year after just two years in office, implicated in an expense scandal in which Marino apparently charged around €20,000 for personal dinners with friends.

Marino’s personal scandal followed the even wider Mafia Capitale scandal, which saw politicians misappropriate public funds (including funding set aside for the education of marginalized Roma children) to organized crime units in both Rome and the surrounding Lazio region. Moreover, by the time Marino finally resigned, no one — not even Renzi, let alone everyday Romans — seemed to have much faith in Marino’s ability to run the city. The Genoa-born Marino came to politics only in 2006 with his election to Italy’s Senato (Senate).

Marino managed to win election in June 2013 only because of the massive unpopularity of his predecessor, Gianni Alemanno, a controversial figure and Berlusconi ally with former ties to the neofascist right who seemed more concerned with stirring up his national profile than the mundane matters of day-to-day governance in Rome. Continue reading Rome elects Raggi, Five Star Movement candidate, as first female mayor

A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

presumptivetrump

A popular figure from television and a neophyte to national politics rides a wave of populist protest against corruption, incompetence and the status quo to the top of the polls. First, he co-opts the nationalist message of conservatives, rattles against the supposed wrongs of neighboring countries and aligns himself with some of the country’s most reactionary forces. He then faces off against a former first lady, whose social democratic credentials are  overshadowed by suspicions and whispers of corruption and foul play. Easily, that man wins the presidency, making easy work of both the country’s conservative movement and the former first lady. guatemala flag icon

Sound familiar?

It’s not the United States and it’s not Donald Trump, now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party.

It’s Jimmy Morales, the populist comedian who won an overwhelming victory in last September’s presidential election in Guatemala.

But you might be excused for confusing the two.

For much of the last 11 months, as Trump has come to dominate American politics, the most immediate comparison in international politics has been former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. It’s true that there are many similarities — both are wealthy, older- than-average figures and both are right-wing populists with a penchant for blunt talk who rose to prominence as political outsiders.

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RELATED: Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

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But unlike Berlusconi, who owns much of the private Italian media, Trump doesn’t actually control any of the American media. What’s more important, though, is that Trump has done so well in presidential politics in spite of his wealth and business prowess. Michael Bloomberg and dozens of other businessmen are far wealthier and far more powerful, but they’re not presumptive nominees of a major U.S. political party.  Trump won the Republican nomination without deploying significant personal wealth and, indeed, he won with just a fraction of the amounts spent by competing Republican campaigns and their various super PACs.

Rather, Trump’s political success is due to his amazing abilities for self-promotion and self-branding, honed after decades of selling the ‘Trump’ brand and after 14 seasons starring in the reality television series The Apprentice. At this point, Trump-as-presidential-nominee owes his success to media personality, not any particular real estate canny.

That’s exactly the same skill set that Morales used in his spectacular run to the presidency in Guatemala last autumn. It’s also nearly the same platform — a lot of populist slogans heavy on identity, nationalism and throw-the-bums-out rhetoric, but light on actual policy details.  Continue reading A populist, nationalist neophyte rises in the Americas

Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

Despite similarities between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and US businessman Donald Trump, there are also key differences to their governance approach.
Despite similarities between former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and US businessman Donald Trump, there are also key differences to their governance approach.

One of the sharpest comparisons for Americans trying to understand the resilient appeal of Donald Trump is the rise of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi in the 1990s.Italy Flag Icon

Rising from the ashes of a widespread corruption scandal that tarred Italy’s entire political elite, Berlusconi, one of the country’s wealthiest businessmen, rose from 1994’s power vacuum to what would become nearly two decades dominating Italian politics. Though he lost power less than a year after his first election, he stormed back to power in 2001. Despite a short-lived turn in 2006 to the center-left’s Romano Prodi, Berlusconi once again returned in 2008. Forced to resign in 2011 amid a debt crisis, Berlusconi still led the Italian right to what amounts to a draw in the 2013 election.

It’s as if Italian voters just couldn’t help themselves, such was the spectacle of a showman that the Italian media dubbed ‘Il cavaliere,’ the ‘knight.’ Time and again, Berlusconi’s charms proved irresistible. It’s not out of the question that he might mount yet another comeback by the time that the 2018 elections roll around. Continue reading Why Trump isn’t quite an American Berlusconi

Don’t be surprised by papal meeting with Kim Davis

Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi meets former Pope Benedict XVI. (Alessia Giuliani/Getty)
Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi meets former Pope Benedict XVI. (Alessia Giuliani/Getty)

Days after Pope Francis left a historic visit to the United States, news emerged that he spent part of his time at an unannounced meeting with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk waging a fight to withhold marriage licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds.USflagItaly Flag Iconvatican flag

As The New York Times reported earlier this morning, Francis met with the Kentucky woman last Thursday at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C.:

On Tuesday night, her lawyer, Mathew D. Staver, said in a telephone interview that Ms. Davis and her husband, Joe, were sneaked into the Vatican Embassy by car on Thursday afternoon. Francis gave her rosaries and told her to “stay strong,” the lawyer said. The couple met for about 15 minutes with the pope, who was accompanied by security guards, aides and photographers. Mr. Staver said he expected to receive photographs of the meeting from the Vatican soon. On Wednesday, the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed that the meeting took place, but he declined to elaborate. “I do not deny that the meeting took place, but I have no other comments to add,” he said.

Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, argues that the meeting undermines the rule of law:

When Francis met with Davis — who let it be noted is an evangelical Protestant, although her parents apparently are Catholic — he was sending the wrong message, namely that there’s something sympathetic or even legitimate about public official refusing to do his or her job when religious teaching goes the other way.

Running for president, John F. Kennedy had to overcome the Protestant allegation that as a Catholic he would obey the pope and not the laws and Constitution of the U.S. In a famous speech, Kennedy made it clear that he wouldn’t take instructions from Rome. And he said he would be a president “whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.” That’s exactly what’s required of all public officials. And no one should undercut it, pope or otherwise.

For better or worse, the Vatican City is a state (albeit a very small one), and both the Vatican City, a traditional jurisdictional-based sovereign, and the Holy See, the universal ecclesiastical government of the Catholic Church have their own versions of the ‘national interest.’ That is, the Vatican and the Holy See both work to perpetuate their global power and influence, chiefly by maintaining and growing the base of 1.2 billion Catholic believers worldwide.

So it should come as no surprise that any pope, Francis or otherwise, would seek to empower the religious influence of Christians, including Protestants like Davis, even if it means trashing the rule of law. It’s no shock to learn that the Catholic Church has often joined the side of illiberalism in history.

The Vatican City came into existence on in 1929 as a sovereign entity when Italy’s Fascist leader at the time, Benito Mussolini, signed the Lateran Treaty with the Holy See, settling a long-running question that followed Italy’s unification in the 1860s. The support that the Catholic Church provided to Italy’s Fascist government is well-documented. Moreover, the Church played an important postwar role in bolstering the essentially one-party rule of Democrazia Cristiana (DC, Christian Democracy), making the Church all too often bedfellows with the Sicilian Mafia and other uncomfortable backers of the Christian Democrats.

As recently as 2008, the Vatican helped pressure senators in Italy’s parliament to bring down the elected government of center-left prime minister Romano Prodi because it fiercely opposed Prodi’s effort to introduce same-sex civil unions. Prodi, it’s true, pushed ahead with the vote despite warnings from many politicians that it would cause his government to collapse. The Church, for what it’s worth, did not force anyone in Italy to vote for Silvio Berlusconi in the resulting election, who won and would serve as prime minister until 2011. But it’s impossible to avoid the uncomfortable conclusion that the Vatican played a significant role in Prodi’s fall. Moreover, Italy today remains one of the only western European countries that lacks marriage equality. That’s almost entirely due to the Vatican’s influence.

Throughout most of the world, the Vatican’s power is limited to ‘soft power’ — that is, the authority that it commands as an arbiter of moral and ethical standards for 1.2 billion Catholics and, likely, throughout all of Christendom. Sometimes, a pope’s influence is political, like John Paul II’s particular experience and anti-Communist credentials as a Polish national serving at the height of the Cold War. Francis, the first Latin American pope, has a particular hold in South America, especially in Brazil and his native Argentina, that mixes religious belief with national pride.

But in Italy, the Vatican actually has quite a bit of ‘hard power’ — according to a recent article in The New Yorker, the Church owns around 20% of all real estate in Italy and 25% of the property in Rome, Italy’s capital and home to the Vatican City itself: Continue reading Don’t be surprised by papal meeting with Kim Davis

Is Donald Trump the American version of Le Pen?

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Over the weekend, Le Figaro pondered whether Donald Trump, the tart-tongued real estate mogul, might be the U.S. version of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the French far-right founder of the Front national (National Front) who’s also become notorious for controversial statements and for trampling ‘political correctness.’USflag

Le Pen, after all, edged out the leftist prime minister Lionel Jospin in the 2002 presidential election, establishing the Fifth Republic’s most lopsided runoff between the noxious Le Pen and the incumbent, center-right Jacques Chirac. Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who is working to broader the FN’s appeal, is polling high in the 2017 presidential contest and may win one of the two final runoff spots.

There are significant differences between the Le Pen family and Trump. Le Pen pere frequently expressed his doubts about the Holocaust with a heavy dose of anti-Semitic populism — so far, Trump hasn’t started questioning the Holocaust or attacking Jewish Americans. But both Le Pen and his daughter developed a significant constituency of French voters by expressing outrage against the influx of immigrants into the country, a concern much closer to Trump’s heart (he announced his candidacy by attacking Mexicans, promising to build a wall along the southern US border and billing it to the Mexican government).

More recently, Marine Le Pen has broadened her attacks to include European institutions, including the eurozone, as an attack on the sovereignty of France. In her exclamations of “Oui, la France!” there’s more than an echo of Trump’s “Let’s make American great again” shtick.

But the support that Trump has amassed in the summer of 2015 isn’t so unlike the wave of populism that’s enveloped Europe (on both the right and the left). Though the US economic recovery has chiefly outpaced that of Europe’s, it’s not been an easy expansion. Sustained unemployment, tepid GDP growth and stagnant wages have left working-class and middle-class American voters less secure — just like working-class and middle-class European voters.

It’s no surprise that since 2010, several new voices of the populist right and the populist left have demonstrated their electoral muscle:

  • In Italy, comic and blogger Beppe Grillo obtained nearly a quarter of the vote in the 2013 elections, and polls show that he still commands upwards of 25% of the vote. Frank Bruni wrote in May in The New York Times that Trump shares much in common with Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who dominated Italian politics from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s and, like Trump, reveled in controversial pronouncements. But Berlusconi was primed for politics by Bettino Craxi, the Socialist prime minister in the 1980s who was ultimately forced into exile in Tunisia; it’s not like George W. Bush or Newt Gingrich developed Trump as a protégé.
  • In the United Kingdom, anti-establishment candidates running for the Scottish National Party (SNP) wiped out longstanding Labour and Liberal Democratic strongholds in Scotland and, in the current Labour Party leadership contest, the far-left Jeremy Corbyn, a firm anti-austerian who wants to renationalize British railways, leads many surveys against more moderate opponents.
  • In Greece, the far-left Alexis Tsipras and SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power in January’s elections, and the equally far-left Podemos hopes to pull off a similar victory in Spain’s general election in December.

It’s not surprising that economic pain, angst about sovereignty, identity and migration and other doubts about ruling political elites are fueling the same kind of anti-establishment reaction in the United States, too, and it’s the same instinct that powered the ‘tea party’ movement of the early 2010s.

It’s too soon to tell what Trump’s lasting legacy will be on the 2016 presidential race. His poll numbers might soon collapse (or not). He could wipe out before the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary. He might win a few early contests before Republican elites step in (and they will) to deny him the presidential nomination. He’s still holding the door open to an independent third-party run in the general election.

But the real template for Trump isn’t necessarily Le Pen or Tsipras or Corbyn or Grillo or even Berlusconi, though they all draw support from the same anti-establishment, populist reservoir.

Instead, it’s a duo of neophyte businessmen who have taken on powerful (and experienced) political leaders over the past two years to upend the status quo. Though Andrej Kiska and Andrej Babiš aren’t necessarily household names, even in Europe, they represent more closely the kind of appeal that Trump — at his best, perhaps — could replicate to upend the Republican establishment.

If I were Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s campaign manager, I would be furiously studying each case to extrapolate lessons for Trump.

kiska

Kiska (pictured above) is a 52-year old businessman who spent much of his life as a entrepreneur in Slovakia, making his fortune in the installment payments and the credit business. Despite his failures to break into the US market, Kiska shifted to charitable works in 2006, founding Dobrý anjel (Good Angel), a charitable organization that provides funds for the seriously ill.

Running as an independent in the Slovakian presidential election in March 2014, Kiska defeated Slovakia’s sitting center-left prime minister Robert Fico. The Slovak presidency is effectively ceremonial, but Fico’s victory would have consolidated power between the ruling party and the presidency. Fico’s defeat dealt an otherwise popular figure a significant blow — and Kiska’s victory preserved a sense of constitutional balance between the executive and the parliamentary.

Going into the election, Fico was a well-liked prime minister and Slovakia’s economic record outpaced its closest neighbors; Kiska was a political newcomer. Fico’s party, Smer–sociálna demokracia, (Smer-SD, Direction-Social Democracy), still widely leads polls for next year’s general election, for example.

Unlike Trump, Kiska didn’t campaign on the macho, alpha-male persona of a successful businessman. But Kiska succeeded by planting doubts about Fico’s campaign and the fact that Kiska was personally untainted by political corruption and ties to Soviet-era politics. By all counts, he’s thrived in the presidential role since taking office last year. The lesson to Trump is that he can dial down the antics and still present a capable challenge to the GOP establishment. Though Trump may embellish the influence that his past donations might have procured, there’s no doubt he is right when he showcases the corrosive influence of money on politics in the post-Citizens United world.

babis

Babiš (pictured above) is also a Slovak-born businessman, but the 60-year old made his fortune in the Czech Republic. Like Kiska, he left business to form a political party, Akce nespokojených občanů (ANO, Action of Dissatisfied Citizens) in 2011.

In the 2013 Czech elections, ANO won nearly 20% of the vote, finishing a strong second to the Česká strana sociálně demokratická (ČSSD, Czech Social Democratic Party) in a highly fragmented result. Babiš, who developed Agrofert, an agricultural and food processing company, into one of the most successful companies in the country, later purchased a series of media companies before he turned to politics as one of the wealthiest men in the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, Babiš argued that he would govern the Czech Republic like a business.

More caustic than Kiska, and more sympathetic to neoliberal policies, Babiš attacked both Czech social democrats and conservatives as corrupt and dishonest, arguing for an end to immunity for political figures. In 2012 and 2013, despite his inexperience, he expertly filled a void for an electorate that had lost trust in the central European country’s ruling elite. In that regard, Trump’s rhetoric much more strongly resembles that of the pugilistic Babiš.

In the past four years alone, a center-right prime minister resigned after his chief of staff (with whom he had become romantically involved) was caught spying on the former prime minister’s wife. It’s also a country where a former Social Democratic prime minister won the presidency in early 2013 and immediately tried to outmuscle the Czech parliament in a constitutional power struggle. That gave Babiš the opportunity to present himself as the truth-telling man of action, despite fears that ‘Babišconi’ would become just another oligarchic leader and despite troubling accusations that he cooperated with the Czech internal police during the Soviet era as well as with the Soviet KGB.

Nevertheless, after the 2013 election, Babiš  set aside his differences with elites and brought ANO into the current government — he now serves as the country’s finance minister. Though the next Czech elections do not have to be held until 2017, ANO leads polls and there’s a good chance that Babiš could become the next prime minister.

The lesson here from Trump is that the righteous ‘pox-on-both-your houses’ anger of the outsider can be effective so long as it’s targeted on the tangible excesses and failures of the ruling class. But it’s not enough, as Trump has done, just to call yourself ‘smart’ and politicians ‘stupid.’ What made Babiš successful was presenting the devastating case for why Czech politics had become so broken.

 

Mixed results for Renzi in Italian regional elections

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Despite headlines proclaiming a setback for Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and his center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Renzi’s Democrats emerge from the May 31 regional elections as the strongest national party in Italy today.Italy Flag Icon

It’s true that the PD’s narrow loss in Liguria, a bellwether region straddling the Mediterranean and home to the ancient city-state of Genoa, is a disappointment for Renzi. His candidate, Raffaella Paita, narrowly lost the race to Giovanni Toti, the candidate of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia. Nevertheless, Renzi will be delighted to have retaken control of Campania, retained power in leftist strongholds like Marche and Tuscany and also in south-central regions like Umbria and Puglia, where the PD will govern with a much more Renzi-friendly candidate than outgoing regional president Nichi Vendola, an avowed communist.

It’s not that it was such a great election for the Democrats or for Renzi, who emerged Monday morning on a surprise visit to Italian troops in Afghanistan. There are many good reasons why voters are losing patience and enthusiasm for the youthful premier. Liberal voters worry that he has not been successful in effecting deep reforms in the face of vested interests. Leftist voters worry has is abandoning the core values of the Italian left. Voters of all stripes are despondent about the poor performance of Italy’s economy, which has only marginally improved in the past year.

Nevertheless, the alternatives to the Democratic Party are still so divided or extreme that the PD is still by far the clearest party of government. If Renzi can achieve more reforms and if the Italian economy improves over the next three years, there’s no reason to believe that Renzi won’t consolidate the PD’s gains at the next national elections, potentially transforming the Democrats into the kind of dominant party of government that the now-defunct Christian Democrats were from the 1950s to the 1990s or that Berlusconi’s center-right was in the 2000s.

Italians voted in seven of the country’s 20 regions, four of which rank among the country’s ten most populous regions. Each region holds two simultaneous elections — the first for a regional president (typically backed by a broad coalition of national and local parties) and the second for parties to the regional assembly.

Liguria, witliguriah just 1.6 million residents, assumed overstated strategic importance as a bellwether region. The left’s loss in Liguria, after a decade in power there, had less to do with the resurgent power of Berlusconi and the centrodestra (center-right) and more to do with three confluent trends throughout the Italian regional elections, all three of which were present in Liguria.  Continue reading Mixed results for Renzi in Italian regional elections

Exit Vendola, stage left, as Puglia’s regional president

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Nichi Vendola, the openly gay, openly socialist president of Puglia, the southeastern Italian region, was once the new face of the Italian left — and was regarded as a potential prime minister by fawning profiles in the global media in 2010 and 2011.pugliaItaly Flag Icon

That praise came with good reason.

Vendola (pictured above), in the waning days of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of Italian politics, was the anti-Berlusconi. In a conservative region like Puglia, where Catholicism is still a strong force, Puglia became an unlikely leader.

This week, however, Vendola announced that while he would always be a militante of the left, he will step aside as the leader of his democratic socialist party, Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom), when he leaves office in Puglia later this year. Italy will hold regional elections in seven regions, including Puglia, on May 31. In recent days, Vendola has spoken about marrying his longtime partner, speculating about fatherhood.

There’s one major reason, among many, that Vendola is headed for retirement instead of to Rome.

It’s the ascendance of Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, the former Florence mayor who won the leadership of the center-right Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) in November 2013 and who wrested the premiership in February 2014 from his technocratic PD colleague Enrico Letta. In one sense, Renzi’s rise has been great news for the Italian left. Renzi’s youthful image and reform-minded approach to government has positioned the Democratic Party as the most dominant centrist force since the fall of the old Christian Democratic Party in the early 1990s.

While that’s been wonderful for moderates, plenty of die-hard leftists are not thrilled with Renzi, especially among the labor unions that have traditionally controlled the political left. For Vendola, an avowed communist, Renzi’s dominance will almost certainly close the door to any further ambitions for Vendola. Despite his widespread popularity in Puglia, where he won two consecutive elections, Vendola failed to win much more than 3% of the vote nationally in the 2013 general election. Though SEL is still polling between 3% and 5% in national polls, it’s difficult to see much of a future for the party without Vendola, whose star quality and charisma propelled it as a wary electoral partner for the Democratic Party, even if Vendola has increasingly distanced himself from Renzi over the past two years. With Vendola’s retirement and with the 2008 collapse of the successor to Italy’s Communist Party, Partito della Rifondazione Comunista (PRC, Communist Refoundation Party), it will be difficult to find any bona-fide communists in the homeland of Gramsci. Continue reading Exit Vendola, stage left, as Puglia’s regional president

Does Mattarella’s election point to new Italian centrism?

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It’s hard to escape the sense that last week’s election of Sergio Mattarella as the successor to Italian president Giorgio Napolitano is one more data point bending toward the conclusion that Italian prime minister intends to transform his Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) into a hegemonic movement akin to the 21st century successor to the old postwar Christian Democrats, pulling and dragging it ever to the center.  Italy Flag Icon

Renzi kept his choice for the Italian presidency closely held until almost the very last moment, and when he did reveal his choice, he ensured Mattarella’s prompt election on the fourth ballot, the first vote of the presidential electors during which a simple majority was sufficient. He did so even after sometimes-ally Silvio Berlusconi indicated that he would back an alternative candidate, irking Renzi’s partner on Italy’s recent push for electoral and senatorial reform as well as labor market reform.

Today, it is clear that Renzi is the most talented Italian politician since Berlusconi emerged in 1994. Still, he’s attempting to pull off an odd balance — the policy audacity of Margaret Thatcher alongside the political vision of Aldo Moro, with a hint of the Machiavellian power principles developed so many centuries ago in Florence, the city that Renzi himself governed until last February.

Politically, Mattarella’s election is a clear victory for Renzi, who surpassed the majority he needed by a margin of 130 votes in the 1,009-elector body. It demonstrates, of course, that he enjoys the support of his historically fragmented party’s legislators, avoiding the fiasco that beset his predecessor as PD leader, Pier Luigi Bersani.

Since Renzi took over the premiership one year ago, pushing aside his own party’s more technocratic prime minister Enrico Letta, Renzi hasn’t moved as quickly as he himself once hoped to institute major economic and political reforms that could pull Italy out of its economic doldrums, which began long before the current economic crisis and precipitate what has now become a triple-dip recession amid the highest unemployment rate in postwar Italy.  Continue reading Does Mattarella’s election point to new Italian centrism?

Calabria, Emilia Romagna elections boost Renzi government

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In the wake of regional elections last month, Italian and international commentators have been quick to anoint Matteo Salvini, the right-wing leader of Italy’s Lega Nord (Northern League) the new star of Italy’s right.  calabriaItaly Flag Iconemilia-romagna

The most important takeaway, however, from both the Emilia-Romagna and Calabria elections on, is that Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi remains, by far, the most potent political force in the country. Renzi’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) won by double-digit margins in both elections. Though worrisome trends for Renzi certainly lurk behind the headline numbers, the overwhelming narrative in Italy is that the Democrats, under Renzi, are quickly becoming Italy’s hegemonic political force, much like the Christian Democrats from the 1950s to the 1990s and the various iterations of the Silvio Berlusconi-led centrodestra (center-right) since 1994.

In both elections, voters were replacing scandal-tainted regional presidents who resigned earlier in the year.

Calabria, in Italy’s south (the ‘toe’ that nearly touches the island region of Sicily), with just 1.98 million residents, is among the poorest regions in Europe, let alone Italy, plagued by the ‛Ndrangheta, the local organized crime operation, and fewer economic opportunities than the more storied (and well touristed) northern regions. The Democrats easily won the regional presidency, however, under the candidacy of Mario Oliverio, the decade-long president of Consenza province, who won 61.4% to just 23.6% for Wanda Ferro, the candidate of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.  The victory means that southern Italy, generally a conservative region, has almost exclusively center-left regional presidents (with the exception of Campania), two of whom — Puglia’s Nichi Vendola and Sicily’s Rosario Crocetti — are openly gay leftists.

Emilia-Romagna, a region of nearly 4.5 million people in central Italy just north of Tuscany, is the beating heart of the Italian left and during the postwar period, its regional governments were reliably under the control of the old Italian Communist Party. So it’s no surprise that the Democratic Party, a few iterations removed from its Communist Party roots, would dominate the race. True to form, the PD’s candidate, Stefano Bonaccini (pictured above, right, with Renzi) easily won the regional elections by a margin of 49.05% to 29.85% for his nearest competitor, Alan Fabbri of the Northern League.

Despite the wide victories for Renzi and his Democratic Party candidates, it was something of a shock that the Northern League won so much support in Emilia-Romagna, both because of the region’s historical left-wing tilt and because the Northern League has focused its efforts north of the region, chiefly in the Veneto, Piedmont and Lombardy.

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That the Northern League is breaking out of northern Italy and into central Italy, with plans to attract national support, is due to the vision of its young new leader, Matteo Salvini (pictured above). Continue reading Calabria, Emilia Romagna elections boost Renzi government

Despite Senate vote, Renzi’s reform push stalling in Italy

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If Rome wasn’t built in a day, it’s certainly proving that it won’t be reformed in a day, either. Italy Flag Icon

Nearing a half-year in office, the most ‘impressive’ accomplishment of Italy’s new prime minister Matteo Renzi is engineering the relatively anti-democratic putsch of his own party’s prime minister, Enrico Letta in February.

Renzi, the 39-year-old former mayor of Florence, gave Letta just 10 months to enact urgent reforms before he executed his takeover of the Italian government. Six months into his own premiership, Renzi has greater support than Letta ever had to shake up Italy’s ossified government. But Renzi nonetheless has surprisingly little to show for half a year in office, even as the country slipped this summer into, incredibly, a triple-dip recession. 

When he ushered himself into power, Renzi came to the office with a wish list of reforms, all of which he promised would be delivered before the summer: a new election law, labor market reforms, tax reform and changes to Italy’s sclerotic public administration. 

Renzi isn’t much closer to achieving any of those today than he was in the spring. He’s lucky to have won a key vote last week in the upper house of the Italian parliament, the Senato (Senate), to reduce that chamber’s powers, making it essentially an advisory body, giving Italy a unicameral parliamentary system in all but name. Renzi must still win a vote in the lower house, the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies), where Renzi’s Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) controls an absolute majority, as well as another final vote in the Senate before the reforms are put before voters in a referendum next year. Continue reading Despite Senate vote, Renzi’s reform push stalling in Italy

As Italy assumes EU rotating presidency, Mogherini shines

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I spoke to the London bureau of Voice of Russia earlier today to share some thoughts about Federica Mogherini (pictured above with Russian president Vladimir Putin), Italy’s still-new foreign minister, and her role in shaping EU foreign policy:Italy Flag Icon

He says that her appointment did surprise some because of her youth and the fact that she has no real top-level ministerial experience. However, “Within Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, she’s established quite a reputation as a rising star, particularly with regard to foreign policy. Beyond Renzi’s efforts of shaking up Italian policy paralysis, it was making quite a statement to appoint a 41-year-old woman as the new foreign minister”…

I argued that Mogherini and Renzi, who has now eclipsed French president François Hollande as the leading figure of the European left, are aiming for a more assertive Italian foreign policy voice. Mogherini has held forth on African migration to the European Union, Iran’s nuclear program, and the ongoing troubles in the Middle East, problems that have a significant diplomatic role for Russia as well as Europe and the United States.

I noted that though Mogherini, who is in Ukraine and Russia this week for talks with officials, is slightly more hawkish with respect to EU sanctions against Russia than perhaps former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi or former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, her top priority is maintaining a united EU foreign policy, especially nine days into Italy’s assumption of the EU six-month rotating presidency.

Italy has grown closer to Russia over the past two decades, and Putin and Berlusconi enjoyed a strong personal relationship that bolstered ties between the two countries. In many ways, that makes Mogherini, like German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a great EU conduit to Russia:

“I think it’s better to say that she’s likely to take a unified line, depending on where other leaders in the EU stand. In many ways, I think Mogherini is a great conduit to help smooth EU talks with [Russian Foreign Minister] Lavrov and other Russian officials.”

Though Mogherini could be mentioned as a candidate to succeed Catherine Ashton as the EU high representative later this year, I noted that Mogherini’s performance, strong as it may be, will be one factor in a set of discussions among the 28 EU member-state leaders that will also consider which states get which portfolios within the European Commission and that will consider the new president of the European Council. But with one of the frontrunners, Poland’s hawkish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, in some trouble for impolitic comments about his country’s bilateral relationship with the United States, Mogherini could emerge as a more conciliatory and diplomatic choice.

Photo credit to RIA Novosti.

Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback

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At the rate that the French political elite is going, Dominique Strauss-Kahn might be the last palatable option standing to challenge nationalist Marine Le Pen in the 2017 election.France Flag Icon

The decision by French prosecutors to open a formal investigation into former president Nicolas Sarkozy today, following his detention on Tuesday for questioning, is certain to rupture Sarkozy’s comeback plans to lead the French center-right in the April 2017 presidential election, leaving both major parties sullied by unpopular, unimaginative and possibly corrupt leadership.

But even as French and global analysts begin writing Sarkozy’s obituary, the current investigation, which involves Sarkozy’s alleged attempts to trade a job in plush Monaco to a judge in exchange for illegal information relating to another investigation, may not necessarily torpedo Sarkozy, even as the former president faces additional legal troubles in related corruption cases.

That will be especially true if Sarkozy is ultimately exonerated, given the aggressiveness with which French investigators have pursued Sarkozy. If he’s not found guilty, the investigations could actually strengthen Sarkozy, allowing him to play victim against an aggressive, out-of-control French judicial system. That’s a well-worn path that’s worked for other European leaders in the past, including former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Sarkozy has already compared the phone-tapping to East German Stasi tactics, and he appeared on French television Wednesday night to blast the ‘political exploitation’ of the legal system.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy will find it difficult to proceed with plans to retake the presidency of his center-right Union pour un mouvement populaire (UMP, Union for a popular movement) later this year. Sarkozy is believed to be keen on returning to the UMP presidency in light of former UMP president Jean-François Copé’s resignation in late May, related to accusations of falsifying 2007 campaign invoices to evade spending limits. 

The current scandal revolves around phone taps that revealed conversations between Sarkozy and his attorney, Thierry Herzog. Those taps, however, were originally designed to gather information about whether Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign was illegally financed with up to €50 million from former Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi. 

The Herzog conversations, however, relate to yet another scandal, the  Bettencourt affair, in which L’Oréal heiress and socialite Liliane Bettencourt may have ferried illegal funding to Sarkozy’s reelection efforts. Though investigators ruled out charging Sarkozy in the Bettencourt matter, the case revolved around the admissibility of Sarkozy’s presidential diaries.

Sure, that’s a lot of scandal and a lot of circumstantial noise surrounding Sarkozy. But what happens if Sarkozy actually goes to jail?  Continue reading Don’t rule out Sarkozy just yet for 2017 comeback