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What to expect from Italy’s new government

Image result for gentiloni
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

Mixed results for Renzi in Italian regional elections


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

A guide to Italy’s post-Napolitano presidential puzzle

Renzi NapolitanoPhoto credit to Roberto Monaldo / LaPresse.

Italy’s presidential election functions more like a papal conclave than a direct election or even like a party-line legislative vote like the recent failed attempts to elect a new Greek president.Italy Flag Icon

The long-awaited decision today by Italian president Giorgio Napolitano to resign after nine years in office is not likely to result immediately in snap elections in Italy, as it did recently in Greece. Nevertheless, the resulting attempt to select Napolitano’s successor presents Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi with perhaps the most treacherous political task since taking office last February.

Napolitano’s legacy

Napolitano, at age 89, was anxious to step down after Italy relinquishes its six-month rotating European presidency this week. Elected president in 2006, Napolitano (pictured above, left, with Renzi), a former moderate figure within Italy’s former Communist Party, is Italy’s longest serving president, reelected to an unprecedented second seven-year term in 2013 when the divided Italian political scene couldn’t agree on anyone else after five prior ballots.

Critics refer to Napolitano as ‘Re Giorgio‘ (King George), but there’s little doubt that he was consequential during Italy’s financial markets crisis in late 2011 by nudging Silvio Berlusconi, who first came to power in 1994, out of office — seemingly once and for all. Napolitano’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering may have prevented Italy from the humiliating step of seeking a bailout from European authorities though his detractors argue that he circumvented the democratic process by engineering Berlusconi’s ouster and appointing former European commissioner Mario Monti as prime minister. Monti, who stepped down after 2013 national elections, largely failed to push through major economic reforms that many investors believe Italy needs to become more competitive, and that Renzi now promises to enact.

Napolitano, who will remain a ‘senator for life’ in the upper chamber of the Italian parliament, steps down with generally high regard from most Italians, who believe that he, in particular, has been a stabilizing force throughout the country’s worst postwar economic recession.

An opaque process to select a president

The process to appoint his successor involves an electoral assembly that comprises members of both houses of the Italian parliament, plus 58 additional electors from the country’s 20 regions — a total of 1,009 electors. Within 15 days, the group must hold its first vote, though it may only hold a maximum of two voter per day. For the first three ballots, a presidential candidate must win a two-thirds majority. On the fourth and successive ballots, however, a simple majority of 505 votes is sufficient. Continue reading A guide to Italy’s post-Napolitano presidential puzzle

Calabria, Emilia Romagna elections boost Renzi government


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.


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


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

A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)


We now have most of the results from across Europe in the 28-state elections to elect all 751 members of the European Parliament.European_Union

At the European level,  the center-right, Christian democratic European People’s Party (EPP) emerged with about 25 more seats than the center-left, social democratic Party of European Socialists (PES).

That immediately gives former the EPP’s candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, former Luxembourgish prime minister Jean-Claude Juncker, a boost in his efforts to actually become the Commission president. But it’s still far from automatic, despite Juncker’s aggressive posture at a press conference Sunday evening:

“I feel fully entitled to become the next president of the European Commission,” Juncker, a former Luxembourg prime minister, told supporters late yesterday in Brussels after the release of preliminary results. Premier for 18 years until he was voted out of office in December, Juncker also gained recognition in his dual role as head of the group of euro-area finance ministers during the debt crisis.

Juncker (pictured above) still must to convince the European Council to propose him as Commission president, and he’ll still need to win over enough right-wing or center-left allies to win a majority vote in the European Parliament.

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RELATED: Here come the Spitzenkandidaten! But does anybody care?

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That process, which could feature a major battle between the European Council and the European Parliament, will unfold in the days, weeks and possibly months ahead.

But what do the results mean across Europe in each country? Here’s a look at how the European elections are reverberating across the continent.  Continue reading A detailed look at the European parliamentary election results (part 1)

Who is Federica Mogherini?


When Matteo Renzi, the 39-year-old former Florence mayor, pushed Enrico Letta out of power in February, I questioned the timing of his decision and noted that it was an arguably anti-democratic electoral coup against a prime minister of his own party that could easily backfire on Renzi.Italy Flag Icon

But among the most eyebrow-raising choices was Renzi’s decision not to reappoint the internationally acclaimed Emma Bonino as foreign minister, allegedly against the wishes of Italian president Giorgio Napolitano.

A longtime leader of the Radicali Italiani (Italian Radicals), a group of reform-minded, good-government economic and social liberals, Bonino had a long career in Italian and international politics as an inaugural (and subsequent) member of the European Parliament,  international trade minister under center-left prime minister Romano Prodi, and European commissioner for health and consumer protection in the late 1990s. A longtime  international activist for human rights, Bonino surfaced briefly as a potential Italian presidential contender in May 2013, though the electors  ultimately decided to reappoint Napolitano.

Instead, Renzi appointed Federica Mogherini, a previously little-known international affairs expert and legislator in Renzi’s Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Of course, youth need not prevent an official from becoming foreign minister (it hasn’t stopped Austria’s 27-year old foreign minister Sebastian Kurz). Nonetheless, it was a risk to replace such a renowned official like Bonino with an untested foreign minister like Mogherini (pictured above). Even before Bonino, the foreign ministry is a role that’s been held by some of Italy’s most senior politicians — Gianfranco Fini and Franco Frattini on the right, and Massimo D’Alema and Lamberto Dini on the left.

Mogherini, in her first trip abroad, was received by US secretary of state John Kerry yesterday, and she appeared briefly at the Brookings Institution today to share thoughts about European relations with Russia, Ukraine, North Africa and the Middle East.

Mogherini is impressive, even to those of us who regret that Bonino’s time as foreign minister was truncated to just 10 months. At her discussion at Brookings, she was more forthright and authoritative than one might expect from such an untested foreign minister.   Continue reading Who is Federica Mogherini?

Did Renzi make a mistake in taking power too soon?


I argue this morning in EurActiv that the mistakes of Italy’s new prime minister Matteo Renzi in the past two weeks alone mean that we should be very skeptical about the chances that he can unlock the puzzle of reforming Italy’s economy and regulatory structure — and especially on a timeline that expects to enact major reforms before voting for the European parliamentary elections:

But for a politician whose brand is based on breaking with Italy’s past, his rise to power represents a very familiar path.  The putsch to oust Letta, executed behind closed doors, is reminiscent of many government reboots of Italy’s past.  Renzi, moreover, hopes to hold power until 2018, giving him four years in office without seeking the mandate of a popular vote.  That’s more ‘politics as usual’ than rupture.  Over the weekend, a planned meeting between Renzi and Beppe Grillo, the leader of the protest Five-Star Movement devolved into a clownish shouting match.  Though the blame rests more with the mercurial Grillo than with Renzi, the Five-Star constituency includes the kind of voters that Renzi must win in order to truly transform Italy’s economy.

I also question whether Renzi’s choices for his new cabinet are entirely wise:

For someone who’s been plotting a move to Palazzo Chigi for two years, Renzi’s cabinet is far from inspiring.  In light of the male-dominated nature of Italian politics and business, it’s promising that Renzi’s 16-member cabinet contains an equal number of men and women.  While the idea was to select a cabinet of young, energetic ministers, the cabinet doesn’t have the feel of an all-star assembly.

Renzi’s finance and economy minister, Pier Carlo Padoan, since 2007 the deputy secretary general of the OECD, has a strong pedigree as an economist, advising Italy’s center-left governments in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the requisite reforms to bring Italy into shape to join the eurozone.  But he falls into the same line of technocratic experts as his immediate predecessors, Fabrizio Saccomanni, Vittorio Grilli and Monti.

Renzi ignominiously dumped Letta’s foreign minister Emma Bonino, a longtime champion of women’s rights abroad and good government at home for the 40-year-old Federica Mogherini, first elected to the Italian parliament in 2008 and who has never held a ministerial post.

Renzi ‘s cabinet also excludes Cécile Kyenge, Letta’s minister for integration.  Letta demonstrated significant courage in appointing Kyenge, Italy’s first black minister.  Though racist slurs against Kyenge often drew negative headlines, her appointment inaugurated an overdue conversation about racism in Italy, especially as it regards integration and immigration, Kyenge’s portfolio.  Dumping Kyenge hardly seems like bold leadership.

Though Angelino Alfano remains interior minister, Renzi stripped Alfano of his title as deputy prime minister, and he cut all but two other members of Alfano’s New Center-Right (NCD) from the cabinet.  Those decisions may haunt Renzi when things get tough in the Italian Senate, where the Democratic Party lacks a majority.

Renzi brings down Letta government, expected to become PM


Just two months into his leadership of Italy’s main center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Florence mayor Matteo Renzi has found a way to balance his criticism of prime minister Enrico Letta’s government against the notion that he’s working against Letta, a former deputy leader of his own party.Italy Flag Icon

He’s decided that it will simply be easier to lead Italy’s government himself — and the past four saves have played out dramatically as Renzi engineered the collapse of Letta’s government.

Initially, Renzi’s gambit looks like it’s going to work.  The Democratic Party national leadership backed Renzi’s plan almost unanimously after a meeting earlier Thursday, where Renzi argued that the party must ‘uscire dalla palude‘ (‘get out of the swamp’) to effect change in Italy.

Letta will resign as prime minister tomorrow.

As a formal matter, Italian president Giorgio Napolitano will consult with the leaders of all of Italy’s political parties about forming a new government, but the outcome seems almost certain.  Renzi, at age 39, will become the youngest prime minister in Italian history, taking over essentially where Letta leaves off.

It’s an audacious and skilled move. It’s one part Giulio Andreotti (note Renzi’s mastery of internal PD politics).  It’s one part Silvio Berlusconi (note Renzi’s mastery of the kind of political theater it takes to wage a successful campaign against your own party’s government).  It’s also one part Michael Corelone — Renzi showed this week he has the ruthlessness to pull the trigger when it counts.  (Can you imagine what British policy might look like today if former foreign minister David Miliband had the same instincts five years ago?)

Renzi expects to form a government that includes the Democratic Party, the centrist Scelta Civica (SC, Civic Choice), a group of reform-minded moderates that supported former prime minister Mario Monti, and the Nuovo Centrodestra (NCD, the ‘New Center-Right’), a breakaway faction from former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s rechristened Forza Italia.  That’s the same coalition that Letta led, with the same strengths and shortcomings.

Renzi says he’ll seek a government through the end of the current parliamentary term, which ends in 2018.   Continue reading Renzi brings down Letta government, expected to become PM

Renzi, Berlusconi team up for electoral law pact


Italian politics just got a lot more complicated.Italy Flag Icon

Over the weekend, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, the leader of Italy’s largest center-right party, Forza Italia, and Matteo Renzi, the leader of Italy’s largest center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), joined forces (pictured above) to introduce the blueprint for a new electoral law.

Notably, the deal didn’t include input from prime minister Enrico Letta, a moderate who leads a fragile ‘grand coalition’ government that includes not just his own Democratic Party, but centrists close to former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti and one of Italy’s two main center-right blocs, the Nuovo Centrodestra (NCD, the ‘New Center-Right’), led by deputy prime minister and interior minister Angelino Alfano.  The Alfano bloc split two months ago from Berlusconi’s newly rechristened Forza Italia, which pulled its support from the Letta government at the same time.

The deal is a political masterstroke by Renzi because it makes him appear to have stolen the initiative from Italy’s prime minister.  Letta formed a government in May 2013 with the two priority goals of passing a new election law and deeper economic reforms.  Despite a ruling in December 2013 that Italy’s current elections law is unconstitutional, Letta’s government has not yet put forward an alternative acceptable to the three main groups in the coalition.  So the Renzi-Berlusconi deal is now the only concrete proposal — it backs up the talk that Renzi, the 39-year-old Florence mayor, will be a man of action in Italian politics.  Renzi won the party’s leadership in a contest in November 2013 over token opposition.  Renzi is neither a minister in Letta’s cabinet nor a member of the Italian parliament, and he’s been more of a critic of the current government than a supporter of a prime minister who until recently was the deputy leader of Renzi’s own party.

By way of background (those familiar can skip the following three paragraphs):

Italy has gone through a few different electoral systems, but most of them have featured either closed-list or only partially open-list proportional representation.  Reforms in 1991 and 1993 transformed the previous system in what’s informally been called Italy’s first republic, which spanned the postwar period until the collapse of the dominant Democrazia Cristiana (DC, Christian Democracy) in a series of bribery and corruption scandals collectively known as Tangentopoli (‘Bribesville’).  But the current system dates to 2005, when Berlusconi ushered in a new law that everyone (including Roberto Calderoli, who introduced the 2005 legislation) now agrees is awful and which Italy’s Corte costituzionale has now invalidated.

The current law, which governed Italy’s elections in 2006, 2008 and 2013, provides for a national proportional representation system to determine the 630 members of the lower house, the Camera die Deputati (Chamber of Deputies).  The party (or coalition) that wins the greatest number of votes nationwide wins a ‘bonus’ that gives it control of 55% of the lower house’s seats, not unlike the Greek electoral system.  But the 315 members of the upper house, the Senato (Senate), are determined on a regional PR basis — the top party/coalition in each of Italy’s 20 regions wins 55% of the region’s seats.  That means, however, that one party/coalition can hold a majority in the lower house, but wield much less than a majority in the upper house.

That’s the exact situation in which Italy found itself after the February 2013 elections, when the Democratic Party and its allies in the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition narrowly edged out Berlusconi’s centrodestra (center-right) coalition.  Beppe Grillo’s protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) followed closely behind in third place.  It meant that while the Italian left controlled the Chamber of Deputies, it couldn’t muster a majority in the Senate.  After a three-month political crisis that ended with the inability to elect a new Italian president (Italy’s parliament ultimately decided to reelect the 88-year-old Giorgio Napolitano to an unprecedented second seven-year term), the Democratic Party’s leader Pier Luigi Bersani resigned, and Napolitano invited Letta to form Italy’s current government.

The Renzi-Berlusconi deal sketches out an electoral reform on roughly the following lines:

  • The Chamber of Deputies would become, by far, the predominant chamber of Italian lawmaking.  The Senate would hold fewer powers as a region-based chamber.  Italy’s national government would also consolidate more powers away from Italy’s regions.
  • Deputies would be elected, as they are now, on the basis of national, closed-list proportional representation, which concentrates power in the hands of party leaders and elites (as opposed to open-list, which would allow voters to choose the members that represent them in parliament).  An alternative might be something akin to the proportional aspect of the Spanish electoral system — in Italy, it would mean a proportional system divided into 118 constituencies, each of which elects four or five deputies.
  • If a party/coalition wins over 35% of the vote, it will still yield a ‘majority bonus’ of either 53% or 54% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies.  If no party/coalition wins over 35%,  the top two parties/coalitions will hold a runoff to determine who wins the majority bonus.
  • Italy would introduce a threshold for parties in order to reduce the fragmentation of Italy’s politics — a party running outside a coalition would need to win 8% of the vote and a party running inside a coalition would need to win 4% or 5% of the vote running outside a coalition (though the thresholds would be much lower in a multi-district ‘semi-Spanish’ system).
  • The deal would not replicate the French system, which elects legislators to single-member districts in a two-round election, and which has been discussed often as an alternative for Italy.

The details are not so important at this stage, because they could change as the Renzi-Berlusconi deal begins the long process of turning into legislation.  But if Renzi can pull the majority of the Democratic Party along, and if Berlusconi’s Forza Italia supports the deal, the two groups could steamroll Italy’s smaller parties, even in the Senate.  If Alfano and his bloc joins, the deal would be unstoppable.  Renzi has already won a majority of the party’s executive committee (a promising first sign), and Alfano has indicated that he’s open to the reform (though less excited about closed lists).

But there are all sorts of fallout effects — politically, legally and electorally — to contemplate over the coming days and weeks. Continue reading Renzi, Berlusconi team up for electoral law pact

In dismissing Fassina, Italy’s Renzi marks his ‘Sister Souljah’ moment


In US politics, the ‘Sister Souljah’ moment dates from the 1992 presidential campaign when Bill Clinton, then the young governor of Arkansas, repudiated the words of a prominent hip-hop emcee and activist (Sister Souljah) by comparing her words to those of prominent white supremacist David Duke.  In scolding her, Clinton distanced himself from African-American civil rights activist and former presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, thereby signaling his willingness to stand up to Jackson and the various interest groups that then dominated the Democratic Party.  Italy Flag Icon

Since 1992 the moniker has been applied to any situation where a politician rebukes extreme statements or views most associated with that politician’s own political party or identity.

So it was in Italy last week when the new leader of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Florence mayor Matteo Renzi caused a rift on the Italian left that precipitated the resignation of deputy finance minister Stefano Fassina from Italy’s beleaguered coalition government.

Fassina resigned after Renzi dismissed his calls for a cabinet reshuffle.  When asked about Fassina’s proposal by the press, a swaggering Renzi responded with a simple, ‘Chi?’ (Who?).  It was a stark reminder that Renzi intends to drag Italy’s main leftist party to more centrist ground in the same way that Clinton pulled the Democrats to the middle in the 1990s and that Tony Blair pulled the Labour Party in the United Kingdom.

It’s a calculated bet, not without some risk, that Renzi can slap down his leftist flank (presumably expanding his appeal to moderate voters) without alienating the left so much that he causes the Democratic Party to crumble.

Fassina represents the socialist-left wing of the Democratic Party that Renzi now leads, after winning the leadership contest in December 2013 against token opposition with 68% of the vote.  Renzi’s coronation, however, obscures the real fissures within the Democratic Party.  In the contest to determine the prime ministerial candidate of the Italian centrosinistra (center-left) in November 2012, former PD leader Pier Luigi Bersani bested Renzi in December 2012 by a whopping margin of 61.1% to 38.8%.

Fassina, as a member of the current grand coalition government headed by prime minster Enrico Letta,  has been incredibly skeptical of spending cuts and other forms of budget austerity.  Fassina is the most well-known of a small group of rising leftists known as the Giovani Turchi (‘Young Turks’) within the party that want to pull it further to the social democratic left, a group that also includes Matteo Orfini and environmental minister Andrea Orlando.  That’s not necessarily a bad space to occupy in Italian politics — it’s a tradition that pulls both from the humanism of the historical Italian left and the Catholic social teaching of the historical Italian right.

But the Young Turks are just one of many factions that comprise the Democratic Party, which itself represents a two-decade struggle to redefine the Italian left — the party is now comprised of over a dozen fiefdoms, including the so-called ‘renziani‘ who support the Florence mayor.   Continue reading In dismissing Fassina, Italy’s Renzi marks his ‘Sister Souljah’ moment

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

Rise of new Italian political leadership eclipses Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate


There’s not much to say about the decision of Italy’s upper house of parliament, the Senato (Senate), to expel former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi last week.Italy Flag Icon

Berlusconi, convicted on a tax fraud charge related to his media company, faces a year of community service and future legal troubles, most notably over charges of soliciting sex from underage prostitutes.

But the fallout from Berlusconi’s most recent political fall dropped long before his expulsion, as a new generation of Italian political leadership has increasingly taken center-stage in Italian politics.

The first sign was the decision among the center-right ministers in the current ‘grand coalition’ government headed by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta to push back against Berlusconi’s September attempt to bring down the government through a vote of no confidence.  Ostensibly, Berlusconi was registering disapproval over the rise of Italy’s VAT from 21% to 22%, but he certainly must have hoped that he could marshal the center-right’s unity to bring down the Letta government, thereby bringing about new elections before the Senate even had a chance to expel him.  Despite initially supporting Berlusconi (who has never served as a minister in the Letta government), deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano and the other ministers gradually pulled away from Berlusconi’s position.  By the time that the Italian parliament voted, Berlusconi himself had resigned to supporting Letta’s government.

The second sign was the formal rupture in mid-November of the party formerly known as Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom).  When Berlusconi tried to rechristen the party under the name of his initial 1994 party, Forza Italia, Alfano and the other moderates within the party pulled out of Forza Italia to form their own bloc, the Nuovo Centrodestra (New Center-Right).  The split meant that Alfano and his allies would continue to support the coalition government and that Berlusconi and his shrinking core of allies would pull their support from the coalition government — it’s a mutually convenient arrangement for both Berlusconi and Alfano, who remain united over their opposition to Berlusconi’s eviction last week and who would still run together under the same broad centrodestra (center-right) umbrella in the event of a new election.  Alfano can play the role of a statesman, and Berlusconi, free from the burdens of government (if not free from the demands of criminal liability) will be able to attack Letta and the center-left without abandon.

For his part, Letta will call a new no-confidence vote on December 11 in the wake of the center-right split, asserting control over his government in the post-Berlusconi era, giving Letta a new chance to deliver on the two major issues that his coalition was designed to address — fiscal reforms to make the Italian economy more competitive and election reforms to fix a helter-skelter system that’s partly responsible for the inertia of Italian government.

Compared to those two efforts, the formal vote to kick Berlusconi out of the Senate was a relatively minor affair.

Berlusconi supplanted Alfano, a former minister of justice and Berlusconi’s one-time protégé, to lead the center-right in the election campaign earlier this year.  Berlusconi’s shrewd success showcased his residual appeal to Italian voters — Berlusconi powered the centrodestra from a huge deficit to coming within 0.4% of defeating the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition.  It’s now a cliché to say that it’s never wise to count Berlusconi out, due not just to Berlusconi’s two decades at the center of Italian politics and power, but also to his wealth and ability to shape opinion through the ownership of much of Italy’s private media.

Polls showed an uptick in Berlusconi’s popularity in the wake of the Senate’s decision, and a December 2 Tecnè poll found that his new Forza Italia still wins about 22% of Italian voters — that’s just around 1% less than Beppe Grillo’s protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) and around 4% less than Italy’s main center-left party, the Partido Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  While Alfano’s New Center-Right wins just 6.9% of the vote, the centrodestra would win around 36% of the vote if an election were held tomorrow to just 31% for the centrosinistra.

‘Aha!,’ say Berlusconi watchers — even at his weakest point, he’s still driving Italian politics.

But it seems more likely today than ever that Berlusconi will never again be Italy’s prime minister.  Continue reading Rise of new Italian political leadership eclipses Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate

What the Alfano-Berlusconi split means for Italian politics


Et tu, Angelino?Italy Flag Icon

In a stunning weekend move, deputy prime minister Angelino Alfano, the longtime political heir of former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, refused to join Berlusconi’s newly rechristened Forza Italia political group.  Instead, Alfano will form his own center-right faction, the Nuovo Centrodestra (or the ‘New Center-Right’).  Alfano, who also serves as the interior minister in the ‘grand coalition’ government headed by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta, disagreed with Berlusconi’s attempt in late September to bring down Letta’s government in order to make way for early elections — ultimately, even Berlusconi backed down when it came time to hold a vote of no confidence.

The timing of the split comes at a critical point for Berlusconi (pictured above, right, with Alfano) and the Italian center-right.  Berlusconi faces expulsion from the Senato (Senate), Italy’s upper parliamentary chamber, in a vote scheduled to take place on November 27 — a direct result of a final conviction against Berlusconi for tax evasion in relation to his corporate media empire.  He’s set to serve a one-year sentence sometime this autumn and, due to his age, Berlusconi has elected community service over prison.

Berlusconi is preparing to take his reduced Forza Italia core — essentially the renamed version of his longtime Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), which itself was known as Forza Italia between 1994 and 2007 — into opposition.

Most immediately, the new Alfano center-right faction’s emergence insulates the government from Berlusconi’s whims by delivering enough center-right senators and deputies to keep the government in place.  In that regard, Alfano’s move this weekend has done more to stabilize Italian politics for the foreseeable future than anything in the past seven months of the Letta government.  While Alfano still opposes Berlusconi’s expulsion from the Senate next week, Berlusconi seems unlikely to win against the combined force of the Italian left and the protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

The move could paint Alfano as a public servant willing to place governance and stability over scoring political points, and voters could reward Alfano when elections are held (still likely next year).  The move also makes it very likely that Alfano will lead the center-right into the next election, just as popular Florence mayor Matteo Renzi seems likely to win a landslide victory for the leadership of the Letta’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) in a vote that will be held on December 8.

Regardless of whether Letta, age 47, or Renzi, age 38, ultimately becomes the center-left prime ministerial candidate in the next election, a new generation of leadership is emerging in Italian politics — especially as the 43-year-old Alfano supplants the 77-year-old Berlusconi and other statesmen like Monti, age 70, and former Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani, age 62, fade from the center of Italian politics.

But it’s been a maxim of Italian politics for the past two decades that you count out Berlusconi at your own risk.   Continue reading What the Alfano-Berlusconi split means for Italian politics