Tag Archives: Italy

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

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.

rome 2016

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

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

Why the future of the LGBT rights fight is international — in 20 tweets

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Though I wasn’t able to join The Atlantic‘s conference this week on the future of the LGBT civil rights fight, I took to Twitter earlier today to make that case that the future of the LGBT rights fights is largely international in character.

Without prejudice to the ongoing fights, legal and political, across the United States, I would argue the LGBT outlook should be much more global in 2015 — and as we look to the future and the kind of world we want to see in 2025 for both LGBT rights and human rights more generally. Continue reading Why the future of the LGBT rights fight is international — in 20 tweets

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

Refugee crisis brings EU back to ‘familiar’ level of dysfunction

munichPhoto credit to Corbis.

A quick take on what’s going on as Europe deals with a growing crisis of refugees and migrants.

After Irish vote, what next for same-sex marriage in Europe?

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There’s no doubt that the landmark vote in Ireland on May 22, the first such referendum where a popular majority enacted same-sex marriage, has been received as a huge step forward for marriage equality and LGBT rights in Europe.Ireland IconEuropean_Union

While the United States supreme court is set to rule later in June on marriage equality as a legal and constitutional matter within all 50 states, it may feel like a watershed moment in Europe as well, where French president François Hollande and the center-left Parti socialiste (PS, Socialist Party) and British prime minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party both swung behind legislative efforts to enact same-sex marriage, in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel officially married his own partner in May, but it was only six years ago that Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir became the world’s first openly LGBT head of government, followed shortly by Belgian prime minister Elio Di Rupo.

Yet the lopsided Irish referendum victory — it passed with 62.07% of the vote and the ‘Yes’ camp won all but one constituency (Roscommon-South Leitrim) — obscures the fact that additional marriage equality gains across the European Union will be slow to materialize. Leave aside the notion, now reinforced by Ireland, that the human rights of a minority can be legitimately subjected to referendum — a precedent that Europeans may come to regret. Amid the recent burst of marriage equality in Europe, the immediate future seems grim.

Nowhere is that more true than just next door in Northern Ireland, which is the only part of the United Kingdom that doesn’t permit same-sex marriage. With the Protestant, federalist electorate dominated by the socially conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of western Europe’s most harshly anti-LGBT political parties, there’s little hope that Northern Ireland will follow in the footsteps of England, Scotland and Wales. At the end of April, Northern Irish health minister Jim Wells was forced to resign after suggesting same-sex couples were inferior parents. It’s home to the late Ian Paisley’s ‘Save Ulster from Sodomy’ campaign in the late 1970s, and it’s where sexual relations between two consenting same-sex partners were illegal until 1981, when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Northern Irish law violated the European Convention on Human Rights.

But Northern Ireland is not alone in its reticence — marriage equality faces long hurdles in some of the European Union’s most important countries, including Germany, Italy and Poland.

The irony is that despite Europe’s leading role two decades ago on LGBT marriage rights, the United States could eclipse Europe with the supreme court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, as the European Union struggles for years to enact consistent marriage equality legislation. Continue reading After Irish vote, what next for same-sex marriage in Europe?

Suffragio takes a break — until next week

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Suffragio is on hiatus for the next week — I’ll have extremely minimal access to the Internet, and I’ll be busy meeting new friends in a new place.

In the meanwhile, there’s going to be quite a bit of electoral politics to watch:

  • Ireland Ireland Iconvotes on May 22 in a referendum to permit same-sex marriage. If polls are correct, it would mark the first time an entire country chooses by direct vote to legalize marriage equality. Ireland, however, remains a socially conservative country where the Catholic church’s influence is strong. Abortion was essentially legalized only in 2013, and there’s every possibility that anti-marriage forces could win an upset. Polls may not be accurately capturing ‘shy’ anti-LGBT voters and, although there’s a majority of Irish voters in favor of marriage equality, it might not be as motivated as anti-marriage voters.
    RELATED: Scotland passes same-sex marriage,
    joining England and Wales
  • Ethiopia votes oethiopia_640n May 24 in what it calls an election. But there’s no indication that the vote will be free and fair, especially in a government climate that disrespects press freedom and has suppressed Oromo and other ethnic groups. Prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn, a southerner, is the nominal successor to the late Meles Zenawi, but there’s no real indication he is anything more than a figurehead. Meles’s ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF, or የኢትዮጵያ ሕዝቦች አብዮታዊ ዲሞክራሲያዊ ግንባር) and, in particular, Tigray figures within its leadership, continue to call the shots.
    RELATED: Can Hailemariam retain power in Ethiopia?
  • Poland vPoland_Flag_Iconotes on May 24 in a runoff to determine the chiefly ceremonial president. Polish president Bronisław Komorowski narrowly trailed his conservative rival Andrzej Duda in the first round on May 10, with over 20% of voters choosing neither candidate and instead supporting former rock musician Paweł Kukiz. The two contenders are now facing a too-close-to-call runoff. If Komorowski loses (and even if he narrowly wins reelection), it could mean trouble for the ruling Platforma Obywatelska (PO, Civic Platform), which has held power since 2007.
    RELATED: Komorowski trails in shock Polish presidential vote result
    RELATEDKopacz puts imprint on Poland’s new government
  • Spain holds regSpain_Flag_Iconional elections on May 24, a harbinger of December’s general election, in 13 of its 17 autonomous communities. The most populous include Madrid, Valencia and Castile and León. The elections will be a test for the two traditional Spanish parties, prime minister Mariano Rajoy’s conservative Partido Popular (PP, People’s Party) and the center-left Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE, Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party), which have both presided over difficult economic conditions and budget contractions in the past six years. It’s also a test for two newer groups that hope to displace them, the anti-austerity, leftist Podemos and the centrist  Ciudadanos (C’s, Citizens).
    RELATED: Socialists thrive in Andalusian regional elections

Upon return, on May 26, I’ll have some brief thoughts on each election and, in particular, Ethiopia, which is one of the most fascinating and dynamic countries in sub-Saharan Africa today, even if its political system remains essentially authoritarian.

On May 31, Italy holds regional elections in several parts of the country, including some of the largest Italian regions like Puglia, Campania, Tuscany and Veneto.

The most important elections of the summer come on one day — June 7. That’s when Mexico holds midterm congressional elections and Turkey holds parliamentary elections.

It’s still a quiet spring and summer for electoral politics after the blitz of 2014’s elections. But there’s still much to look forward to later this autumn — from Guatemala to Canada, from Burma/Myanmar to  Denmark and from Portugal to Argentina. And the lull in electoral politics will provide a chance to delve into the fascinating political dynamics of China and the Middle East — just because a country doesn’t have elections doesn’t mean it doesn’t have politics. Suffragio will be there for all of it.

In the meanwhile…

Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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Part of the undeniable appeal of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is her push to become the first woman to lead the United States, enhanced by the fact that she aims to succeed the first African-American president.USflag

But, if elected, Clinton will be far from the only powerful woman on the world stage.

If she wins the November 2016 presidential race, she’ll join a list of world leaders that includes German president Angela Merkel, Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Chilean president Michelle Bachelet.

What’s more, there’s never been a better moment for women leading their countries. Assuming that Clinton wins the presidency in 2016 and serves two terms, it’s not inconceivable that she’d lead the United States at a time of ‘peak’ female leadership. But nowhere is that more true than in Europe. In fact, it’s not inconceivable that each of the six largest member-states of the European Union could have women in charge during a potential Clinton administration.

Here’s who they are — and how they might rise to power. Continue reading Nine European women who could join Hillary Clinton at the top

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?

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

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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

ECB’s Draghi on raising inflation in Europe: ‘We will do exactly that.’

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Italy’s Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, joined Stanley Fischer, the vice chair of the Federal Reserve, in an hour-long program at the Brookings Institution earlier today.European_Union

Draghi addressed at length both the ECB’s steps to confront deflation and the need for EU countries to enact bolder economic reforms in his remarks and in his discussion with Fischer, the former president of Israel’s central bank and a former professor at the University of Chicago who once taught Draghi.

Deflation as Europe’s chief economic threat

DSC00853Draghi stressed that he understands the biggest risk to European Union’s economic recovery is deflation. He noted that the ECB is transitioning from a more passive approach to a much more active ‘QE-style’ approach to the bank’s balance sheet — in part by moving last month to purchase private-sector bonds and asset-backed securities. Even if Draghi’s efforts still fall short of the kind of quantitative easing (e.g., outright asset purchases) that the Federal Reserve introduced to US monetary policy five years ago, Draghi committed himself to lifting the eurozone’s inflation from ‘its excessively low level’:

We will do exactly that.

It’s not exactly ‘whatever it takes,’ but it’s a sign that Draghi realizes the dangers that deflation presents, with the eurozone inflation rate falling to just 0.3%, the lowest level since the height of the eurozone’s existential sovereign debt crisis:

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Draghi has been one of the leading voices for a more active ECB approach to boosting inflation to 2% within the next two years, though Germany’s powerful central bank, the Bundesbank, and its president Jens Weidmann (also a member of the ECB’s 24-person governing council), remains skeptical of full-throated quantitative easing.  Continue reading ECB’s Draghi on raising inflation in Europe: ‘We will do exactly that.’