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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

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

No, Venice isn’t about to break away from the rest of Italy

Piazza San Marco

Though it was essentially nothing more than an online poll, the Venetian independence movement has now become an international headline, with first Italian media, then Russian media and now US publications asking whether Veneto will be the next region to succumb to separatist sentiment.Italy Flag Iconveneto

Although the online plebiscite is raising more publicity than its promoters could have possibly hoped, it’s still just an unofficial, Internet-based poll. So when you see headlines that scream that 89% of Venetians are voting for independence from mainland Italy, keep in mind that it’s more a stunt than an actual referendum.

Plebiscite 2013, a Venetist group, conducted the referendum between March 16 and 21, and it claims that 2.36 million Venetians voted in the online poll for full independence from Italy, fully 89.1% of the voters who participated. There are good reasons to doubt whether those numbers are accurate — Il Corriere del Veneto today reports that, following an analysis of the web traffic data, the real total is something more like 135,000, and among those voters, there are more votes from Chile than from Padua, one of the region’s largest cities. While you should take the Venetist movement increasingly seriously, the March online poll is not the most credible evidence. Continue reading No, Venice isn’t about to break away from the rest of Italy

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

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

Berlusconi verdict plunges Italian right (and everyone else) into uncharted uncertainty


Although Italy’s highest court upheld a one-year sentence against former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi today, the longtime center-right leader made it clear that he intended to remain in the thick of Italian politics for the next year and then some.Italy Flag Icon

Berlusconi’s legendary legal troubles outdate even his nearly two-decade political career, but today was the first time that Italy’s Corte di Cassazione (Court of Cassation) upheld any of Berlusconi’s multiple criminal convictions.  The decision upheld Berlusconi’s conviction for tax fraud and upheld the four-year sentence, though the actual sentence has been reduced to one year, thanks to an amnesty passed into law by former center-left prime minister Romano Prodi back in 2006.  But Berlusconi is unlikely headed to prison anytime soon, due to his advanced age (76) and the fact that this is technically his first final conviction — Berlusconi has successfully appealed previous convictions or otherwise evaded jail time due to immunity while in public office or through the expiration of the statute of limitations.

Furthermore, the court remanded for review by the lower appeals court in Milan a previous five-year ban on holding public office, which the court ruled should not last five years, but instead between one and three years.  Berlusconi’s public service ban will therefore need to be confirmed by the upper house of Italy’s parliament, the Senato (Senate).

That creates an immediate tripwire for prime minister Enrico Letta’s ‘grand coalition’ government that has brought Berlusconi’s Il Popolo della Libertà (PdL, the People of Freedom) together with the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Together, the two parties hold a majority in the Senate, but the PdL holds just 98 out of 315 seats.  Berlusconi’s ally, the Lega Nord (Northern League), holds an additional 18 seats, even though it’s chosen not to join the current governing coalition.  So in order to evade the public office ban, Berlusconi will need the support of the Letta and the Democrats, and there’s a real danger that Berlusconi will threaten to bring the Letta government down unless they back him.

But that’s assuming the Letta government even makes it that far, in light of an economy that shrank by 0.6% in the first quarter of 2013 alone and  a generation-high unemployment rate of 12.2% as of May 2013.  Despite Letta’s hopes to reform Italian finances, the PdL campaigned on reversing an unpopular property tax levied by the previous technocratic government of prime minister Mario Monti last year, so Berlusconi and his allies are pushing to scrap the property levy and to prevent a proposed 1% increase in the highest bracket of Italy’s value-added tax.  Meanwhile, Berlusconi’s top lieutenant, deputy prime minister and interior minister Angelino Alfano is under fire for the swift deportation of the wife and six-year-old daughter of Kazakh dissident oligarch Mukhtar Ablyazov in May.  Letta’s minister for integration, Cécile Kyenge, and Italy’s first black government minister, has faced a barrage of racial slurs — most recently, an opponent threw bananas at her during a speech last week.

Monti, who formed the centrist, pro-reform Scelta Civica (Civic Choice) in advance of February’s election, and who, alongside other centrist allies, forms the third and smallest bloc in the governing coalition, is allegedly so frustrated that he was ready to resign as leader of his own party yesterday.

Beppe Grillo, the leader of the protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), which finished a strong third-place in February’s elections and who has refused to ally with either the Italian right or the Italian left, compared the Berlusconi conviction to the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall at his popular blog earlier today.

The volatile Berlusconi is also appealing a preliminary conviction of paying for sex with underaged Moroccan dancer Karima el-Mahroug and of abuse of office after trying to pressure local authorities to release the dancer after an alleged theft.

After today’s verdict, Berlusconi lashed out in a television address (pictured above) against what he called an irresponsible judiciary, as he’s done so many times before — he attacked the judiciary as a dangerous and unelected branch of government that began with the judicial investigations of the Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal in 1992 and 1993 that so thoroughly wiped out the longstanding Italian political order that it marks the unofficial designation between Italy’s ‘first’ and ‘second’ republics.  Berlusconi reiterated plans, unveiled just last week, to change the name of his party back to its original name, Forza Italia, in a bid to attract younger voters, renewing speculation that he may be preparing to pass his political baton to his 46-year-old daughter, Marina Berlusconi.

So Berlusconi may well just try to roll the dice by bringing the coalition down immediately and move for early elections now.

He would do so knowing that the Democratic Party itself remains hopelessly divided and leaderless — Letta, though he is prime minister, remains the deputy prime minister of the party, pending a still-unscheduled leadership election later this year.  Though 38-year-old Florence mayor Matteo Renzi is the most popular politician in the country, having harnessed the frustration of Italians with the entire spectrum of current political leadership, his potential leadership of the party remains controversial.  It could well result in the disintegration of Italy’s Democratic Party, which formed in 2007 after a gradual melding of former moderate Italian Communists and former liberal Christian Democrats.

The latest polls show, essentially, a toss-up: the centrosinistra would win 33.7%, the centrodestra would win 34.3%, Grillo’s Five Star Movement would win 20.6%, and Monti’s centrists would win just 6.1%.

As the always-sharp Alberto Nardelli concluded earlier today:

It’s impossible to make predictions on what will happen next as we’re in unchartered territory, but what is certain is that today was one of the most significant events in Italy’s recent political history and the consequences and risks could be dire however you look at it. Continue reading Berlusconi verdict plunges Italian right (and everyone else) into uncharted uncertainty

Italy’s problem with racism goes far deeper than recent slurs against Cécile Kyenge


It seems like barely a week goes by without another story coming out of Italy about another racial slur hurled at the Mediterranean country’s first black government minister, Cécile Kyenge. Italy Flag Icon

This week’s row comes from Roberto Calderoli, a member of the Lega Nord (Northern League), the autonomist right-wing party that has in the past allied itself with Silvio Berlusconi, though it’s not part of the current ‘grand coalition’ led by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta.

Calderoli, speaking over the weekend, railed against Kyenge, arguing that her success encourages ‘illegal immigrants’ to come to Italy, that she should be a minister ‘in her own country,’ and added this gem:

“I love animals – bears and wolves, as everyone knows – but when I see the pictures of Kyenge I cannot but think of, even if I’m not saying she is one, the features of an orangutan,” Mr Calderoli said in a speech to a rally in the northern city of Treviso on Saturday.

Calderoli’s comments were unthinkably crass but, unfortunately, they are not atypical in the three months since Kyenge came to power, nor are they incredibly out of the norm for a political culture that has long treated racism with a wink and a smile, such as when Berlusconi himself described Barack Obama, the first black president of the United States, as particularly ‘suntanned.’

Kyenge (pictured above with Letta), an Italian citizen who was born in Congo, came to Italy in 1983, when she set up a practice as a doctor in Modena, in the central Italian region of Emilia-Romagna.  Earlier this year, she was first elected to Italy’s Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies) as a member of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).  Letta appointed her as the government’s minister for integration, in part due to the work Kyenge has done since founding DAWA, an association designed to promote multicultural awareness in Italy and to foster cooperation between Italy and Africa.  Prior to becoming an Italian deputy, Kyenge served as a provincial councilor in Modena for four years, and she’s a proponent of a jus soli, a law that would grant citizenship to those children of immigrants who are born in Italy.

In short, Kyenge personifies a new kind of 21st century success story for first- and second-generation Europeans in a world where globalized ties are now bound to blur ethnic, racial, national and cultural borders.

It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t the first time Calderoli has been accused of racism or insensitivity.  He was forced to resign as a minister in a previous Berlusconi government in 2006 after purporting to wear a t-shirt showing the printed cartoons of a Danish newspaper depicting the prophet Mohammed.  (Having returned to a subsequent Berlusconi government a few years later, it was Calderoli who drafted the election law that now virtually everyone in Italy agrees is worthless).

Nor is it the first time Northern League politicians have made controversial statements about Kyenge — one of its local politicians earlier in June called for Kyenge to be raped, so she would understand how victims feel, and in April, another European Parliament member, Mario Borghezio, called her part of a ‘bonga, bonga government’ and argued that she wanted to ‘impose her tribal traditions from the Congo.’

Kyenge has accepted Calderoli’s begrudging apology, but it’s not even the only incident this week — members of the far-right Forza Nuova (New Force) party held an anti-immigration protest featuring nooses in Pescara in central Italy.

In the long run, it may well be that Kyenge’s graceful responses to unacceptably mean-spirited and racist comments convince more Italians that there’s no place for racism in Italian public discourse — she has the power to turn ugly incidents like Calderoli’s slur into what Obama himself might call a ‘teachable moment.’

But that task is made equally difficult by the integration portfolio that Kyenge holds, which means that she is responsible for policymaking on immigration and the nearly 4.5 million foreign residents who live in Italy.  Even as Kyenge tries to deflect tensions, Calderoli and other Northern League politicians may be using outbursts about Kyenge as a deliberate strategy to inject racial resentment as a potent political wedge issue.

Although migrants have been coming to Italy since the 1970s, which makes immigration to Italy a more recent phenomenon than in other European countries, about two-thirds of Italy’s current foreign residents have arrived in the past decade.  The net result is a country that hasn’t had time to develop the political or cultural institutions to cope with a very rapid influx of foreigners, let alone to develop the vocabulary of multiculturalism in a country that can be sometimes quite insular in a way that’s both profound and provincial, troubling and quaint Continue reading Italy’s problem with racism goes far deeper than recent slurs against Cécile Kyenge

Who is Enrico Letta?


Earlier today, newly reelected Italian president Giorgio Napolitano appointed the deputy leader of the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Enrico Letta, as Italy’s newest prime minister.Italy Flag Icon

Letta will now seek a ‘grand coalition’ government with Silvio Berlusconi and the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom).  Former centrosinistra (center-left) leader Pier Luigi Bersani repeatedly refused previous attempts at a ‘grand coalition’ in post-election talks since February.  While it means more short-term stability for Italy and it likely means Italy won’t return to the polls this summer or even perhaps this year, it seems unlikely that the Letta-led coalition will endure for a full five-year term, which means that Italian government will proceed with one eye looking toward the next elections.

So who is Letta and what would a Letta-led government mean for Italy?

The basics are rapidly becoming well-known: he’s from Pisa, he was a European affairs minister in the government of Massimo D’Alema in the late 1990s, he was first elected a member of Italy’s lower house, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), in 2001, and he was a European Parliament MP from 2004 to 2006.  He was a candidate for the leadership of the Democratic Party when it was first established in 2007, though he lost that race to the wide favorite, former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni.  His uncle, Gianni Letta, is one of Berlusconi’s top advisers, and was himself the PdL candidate for the Italian presidency back in 2006 when Napolitano was first elected. 

As OpenEurope writes this morning, Letta’s both pro-European and apparently anti-austerity, making him a good bridge between outgoing prime minister Mario Monti and the more populist elements in the PD, the PdL and the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

In other words, Napolitano has appointed a Prime Minister with solid European credentials and who can credibly argue for an easing of austerity in the EU. Quite smart.

At age 46, he would be the second-youngest prime minister in post-war Italy, much younger than Giuliano Amato, the 74-year-old who led center-left (largely technocratic in nature) governments in 1992-93 and 2000-01.  Amato had been mentioned as Napolitano’s favored candidate since Napolitano’s reelection as president on Saturday, and Florence mayor Matteo Renzi had also been thought to be a contender for prime minister.  Letta, in contrast, was a bit of a surprise, though his appointment is not incredibly outlandish.

In many ways, Letta melds the best of both an Amato appointment and a Renzi appointment.

Like Renzi, he’s part of a new generation of Italian leadership, but Berlusconi apparently scoffed at the elevation of the most popular center-left politician in Italy, and Renzi himself is probably relieved not to have to lead a coalition government that will leave much of the center-left disillusioned and that could still lead to the disintegration of Italy’s still-young Democratic Party.

Although Amato once served as my professor in Italy, I believe he would have been a problematic choice for a ‘technocratic’ government for two reasons.

The first is that Italy has already had a technocratic government since November 2011, and the intervening February 2013 election results should clearly inform the creation of the next government.  No one voted for Letta, perhaps, but his government will be political, not technocratic, and it will have a political cabinet and an agenda hammered out between the two largest forces in the Italian parliament.  Despite what remains a very wide gulf between Berlusconi and the centrosinistra, the German ‘grand coalition’ example remains a best-case lodestar for the newly minted Letta government.

The second is that Amato, fairly or unfairly, remains a link not only to Italy’s past, but to the collapse of its first republic. Though he’s one of the few members of Italy’s old Socialist Party to make a successful transition to the second republic (he served as the minister of the interior in the late 2000s under prime minister Romano Prodi), his appointment would symbolize so much of what’s wrong about Italian political leadership.  As the septuagenarian prime minister of an octogenarian president, I fear Amato — no matter how competent a prime minister — would have highlighted the rule of an Italian gerontocracy that refuses to leave the stage after decades in power.

So what’s next?  Continue reading Who is Enrico Letta?

Maroni’s Lombardy victory consolidates Northern League’s regional hold


European and global stock markets whipsawed earlier this week as investors contemplated the notion of gridlock in Italy’s hung parliament following the weekend’s inconclusive vote, and what that means for the eurozone’s future. 
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Predictably enough, European leaders took turns to warn Italy not to veer from its austerity-minded course, and Germany’s hapless social democratic leader Peer Steinbrück even managed to insult Italy’s president by referring to center-right leader Silvio Berlusconi and protest leader and blogger Beppe Grillo ‘clowns.’

But as Italians turned to counting results from regional elections yesterday, there’s another threat looming on the horizon — the specter of separatism.

Even as the autonomist Lega Nord (Northern League) fell from 60 deputies to just 18 in Italy’s lower house, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), its leader Roberto Maroni (pictured above) won a hard-fought battle for control of Italy’s largest regional government on a slogan of ‘prima il Nord‘ — ‘the North first.’

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That’s because, in addition to the general election, Italians in Lombardy, Lazio and Molise also went to the polls to elect their regional governments as well — it’s as if, on the day of the Canadian federal election, each of Ontario, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island each held their own provincial elections as well.

And there’s no bigger prize than Lombardy, the home of Milan, Italy’s financial, industrial and fashion capital, is Italy’s wealthiest region and its most populous as well — with 10 million people, one in six Italians is a Lombardian.

Maroni’s victory is pivotal because it now gives the Northern League control of the regional governments in Italy’s three largest, wealthiest regions, and Maroni has not hidden his ambitions for a more autonomous northern Italy.  In the past two decades, the Northern League has alternated between supporting greater autonomy and supporting full independence for ‘Pavania,’ its term for northern Italy.

Maroni envisions a Europe of ‘regions,’ and a more federal Italian government that allows northern Italy to keep more of its revenues:

“If I win in Lombardy, a new phase will open: it’s about the path which leads to the creation of the macro-region, and in the same time the first piece of the new Europe of the Regions. It’s an ambitious project, which is not concerning the destiny of Lombardy only, but of the entire North. And it could change history: in Italy’s Northern regions and in Europe.”

That explains, in part, why Maroni was so enthusiastic to leave national politics for local politics — he took over as national leader only last year after long-time Northern League leader Umberto Bossi resigned amid corruption charges.  Maroni has become a familiar face to all Italians over the past two decades — he served as minister of the interior in Berlusconi’s past 1994-95 and 2008-11 governments, and as minister of labor and welfare from 2001-06.

Initially, Maroni wants Lombardy to keep 75% of its total tax revenues, compared to around 66% of the tax revenues it retains currently.

Luca Zaia, the leader of the Liga Veneta (Venetian League), is the regional president of Veneto, where separatist support is strongest, having won the 2010 regional elections in Veneto in a landslide victory, heading a broad center-right coalition.

To the west of Lombardy, in Piedmont, support for the Northern League has traditionally been less enthusiastic — after all, the genesis of Italian unification in the 1860s was born in what was then the kingdom of Piedmont.  Nonetheless, Roberto Cota won control of Piedmont’s government in the 2010 regional elections, leading a center-right coalition that very narrowly ousted the previous center-left Piedmontese government.

With a 2014 referendum on Scotland’s independence from the United Kingdom scheduled and an inevitable showdown between Catalunya’s president Artur Mas and the federal Spanish government over Catalan independence, Maroni’s consolidation of northern Italy under autonomist control means that northern Italy may become the next separatist domino to follow, especially as Italy’s economy continues through a brutal recession and its national government seems unable to take any measures to ameliorate economic decline (or, following this weekend’s election, take any measures at all).

So long after the current crisis recedes with respect to Italy’s national government, Maroni will be around for some time to come to cause headaches for the next Italian prime minister — even more so if it turns out to be a center-left prime minister, such as Pier Luigi Bersani, whose centrosinistra coalition, dominated by Bersani’s Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), looks to form a stable government.

In some ways, Maroni’s victory is more stunning than the Northern League’s 2010 upset victory in Piedmont. Continue reading Maroni’s Lombardy victory consolidates Northern League’s regional hold

Making sense of today’s Italian election results


UPDATE, 7:30 p.m.: Here’s an additional piece on where Italy goes from here — a look at four potential outcomes to watch for in the days ahead.

* * * * *

The election results from Italy’s general election have largely been counted, and they’re backing up the exit polls (not the initial instant polls from the preceding hours leading up to the election) that show a hung parliament — leaving the short-term future of Italy’s government unclear.Italy Flag Icon

Right now, it certainly looks like Pier Luigi Bersani’s centrosinistra (center-left) coalition will win a majority in the elections for Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), Italy’s lower house, while former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s centrodestra (center-right) coalition will win a majority in the elections for Italy’s upper house, the Senato (Senate).

Nonetheless, the big winner is the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), the protest group of blogger and comedian Beppe Grillo (pictured above), which has significantly outperformed polling expectations and may well become the single largest ‘party’ in the Italian parliament.

Bersani leads in Italy’s lower house

In the 630-member lower house, the latest projections show Bersani’s centrosinistra with a small lead of around 29% or 30% to just 28% or 29% for the centrodestra, and a whopping 25% or 26% for the Five Star Movement.  Far behind in fourth place is prime minister Mario Monti’s centrist coalition with around 11%.  The communist, green, anti-corruption Rivoluzione Civile (RC, Civil Revolution) headed by antimafia magistrate Antonio Ingroia has won barely over 2%.

If that result holds, it means Bersani will command an automatic majority in the lower house — the winner of the largest share of the votes wins 54% of the seats in the Camera dei Deputati, so Bersani is likely to hold 340 seats.

Berlusconi leads in Italy’s upper house

In the Senato, however, seats are awarded proportionally on a regional basis, with a regional ‘bonus’ — the winner of the largest share of the votes in each region automatically wins 55% of the seats in that region.

It’s too soon to tell whether Bersani or Berlusconi will win the greater number of votes nationally in the senatorial elections, but it’s likely that Berlusconi may emerge with the greatest number of the 315 seats up for election today (though far short of a majority) — the latest projections show the centrodestra with 114 seats, the centrosinistra with 113 seats, the Five Star Movement with 57 and Monti’s coalition with 17.

Berlusconi wins Piedmont, sweeps southern Italy in senatorial elections

When you look at the results region-by-region, you begin to see just how amazing the comeback has been for Berlusconi.

Right now, it appears that Berlusconi’s coalition has not only won Piedmont and Veneto in northern Italy, but also Lombardy, Italy’s most-populous region, by what appears to be a whopping 38.0% to 29.5% victory.  That doesn’t bode well for the centrosinistra in regional elections in Lombardy, where the centrodestra is trying to hold onto power under its candidate for regional president, Roberto Maroni, since 2012 the national leader of the Lega Nord (Northern League).  Maroni faces a tough challenge from the leftist candidate, Umberto Ambrosoli.  Exit polls showed a very close regional race. 

In southern Italy, where the centrosinistra was hoping to break through with a credible chance at sweeping the south, Berlusconi’s coalition has apparently won each region, excepting Basilicata.  That includes Campania and Sicily, Italy’s third- and fourth-most populous regions, respectively.  Berlusconi leads 37.2% to 29.1% in Campania and by 33.2% to 27% in Sicily (where Grillo’s Five Star Movement, not typically strong in the south, won 29.5%).  It also includes Puglia, the home of twice-elected regional president Nichi Vendola, the leader of the socialist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom) that is part of Bersani’s coalition.  Although SEL won nearly 7% in Puglia, its best result nationwide, it wasn’t enough to power the centrosinistra to victory, where it was trailing with 28.3% to the centrodestra‘s 34.5%.

Grillo is the biggest winner, Monti the biggest loser

All in all, the result is a victory for Grillo — his movement outpolled Berlusconi’s party (though not his broader coalition), the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) and it’s still too soon to tell, but there’s a chance the Five Star Movement outpolled Bersani’s party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) as well.

Going down the list of senatorial results, it looks like the Five Star Movement outpolled both the PD and the PdL in Veneto in the northeast, Liguria in the northwest, Marche, Abruzzo and Molise in the center of Italy, and Sicily and Sardinia as well, with Grillo’s movement winning around 30% in some of his strongest regions.

Monti, by contrast, appears to have finished in fourth place — and a far-off fourth place — in every region.  Despite his alliance with the Christian Democrats — long-dominant in Italy’s south — Monti polled worst in Italy’s south, and did best (winning double digits of up to 12%) in the northern industrial regions like Piedmont, Lombardy, Friuli and Veneto.

That means that, even if they could find a way to build a coalition, Monti and Bersani are unlikely to have sufficient strength in Italy’s upper house to form a coalition.

Other winners and losers Continue reading Making sense of today’s Italian election results

What kind of Italian prime minister would Angelino Alfano make?


Due to electoral law considerations, Italy hasn’t seen any new election polls in 12 days, but when the polling blackout began, one thing seemed certain — former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi had cobbled together a strong centrodestra (center-right) coalition that had narrowed the once insurmountable lead of the centrosinistra (center-left) to within single digits.Italy Flag Icon

It still seems unlikely that Berlusconi could pull off a comeback that would return the centrodestra to power, but if he actually does, he has agreed not to return as prime minister in the next government.

In a bid to bring the autonomist Lega Nord (Northern League) into his coalition, Berlusconi pledged to the Lega Nord‘s leaders in January to put forward former justice minister Angelino Alfano as a candidate for prime minister instead — that now looks like a wise move, given that the coalition has come within striking distance of the centrosinistra only because of the relative strength of the Lega Nord‘s supporters in northern Italy.

In particular, the centrodestra remains essentially tied to win the Italian senatorial elections in the region of Lombardy, Italy’s wealthiest and most-populous, on the strength of the Lega Nord.  Although Lombardy leans right in most years, Berlusconi’s unpopularity has put the region in play; in simultaneous regional elections, the Lega Nord‘s national leader Roberto Maroni is running a spirited campaign to become regional president.

Notwithstanding his pledge, Berlusconi, as the leader of the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), has led a characteristically spirited anti-austerity and populist campaign.  Unlike the PdL and the main center-left party, the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), the Lega Nord never backed the technocratic government of prime minister Mario Monti in November 2011.

In a world where everyone has expected that Pier Luigi Bersani will lead the next Italian government, what would it mean if Alfano were suddenly in line to become Italy’s next prime minister?

First and foremost, you should expect that even if Berlusconi isn’t technically heading Italy’s government, he won’t be too far away from the thick of things.  He’s said that he would serve in government as Alfano’s finance minister (of all posts, you’d think Berlusconi wielding power over Italy’s finances would terrify investors and bondholders, to say nothing of German chancellor Angela Merkel).

So there’s a chance that Alfano would serve as the Dmitri Medvedev to Berlusconi’s Putin — that’s something you might expect in Russia, but it’s not quite best practices for a thriving democracy or for Europe’s fourth-largest economy.

Alfano currently serves as party secretary of the PdL and, when Berlusconi stepped down as prime minister in November 2011, he indicated he would leave frontline politics and quickly anointed Alfano — over older figures like former finance minister Giulio Tremonti or the more staunchly conservative Rome mayor Gianni Alemanno — as his preferred successor.

Berlusconi being Berlusconi, of course, Italy was subject to an on-again, off-again Hamlet act from Il cavaliere, who gave contradictory indications about a return to politics before confirming in December 2012 that he would lead the PdL into the next general election.

So what of Alfano himself? Continue reading What kind of Italian prime minister would Angelino Alfano make?

How the Italian election, Bersani’s to lose, became a Berlusconi-Monti dogfight


There are now less than two weeks to go before Italians select a new prime minister, and if you watched the dueling soundbites, you would be forgiven if you thought the two main contenders were current prime minister Mario Monti and former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.Italy Flag Icon

But while Berlusconi and Monti have taken up much of the headlines, the centrosinistra (center-left) coalition headed by Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), still seems more likely than not to win the Feb. 24 and 25 parliamentary elections, guaranteeing a majority in the 630-member Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies), the lower house of the  Parlamento Italiano (Italian Parliament) and a plurality of the seats among the 315 elected members of its upper house, the Senato (Senate).

As of last Friday — the last day under Italian law that new polls can be published in advance of the election — the broad centrosinistra coalition still held a single-digit, but steady, lead over the centrodestra coalition dominated by Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom).  After consolidating the center-right, especially by gaining the support of the autonomist Lega Nord (Northern League), Berlusconi’s coalition has pulled to within a modest deficit with the centrosinistra, despite the fact that polls show his PdL with less than 20% support and the PD with consistently over 30%.

Meanwhile, the centrosinistra coalition has lost some support to both the centrist coalition headed by Monti, the outgoing technocratic prime minister, and the anti-austerity protest Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo was also gaining steam going into the final two weeks of the campaign.

So if the centrosinistra lead has been whittled down a bit, the race to govern Italy still seems like Bersani’s fight to lose.  It’s a much more fragile lead than it was when the campaign started, but in Italy, you’d expect the race to tighten, especially with Berlusconi’s full-court press — even in his weakened political state, Berlusconi remains one of Italy’s richest men, and he commands a significant amount of media control.

Since the start of the campaign, even with Bersani and his center-left allies campaigning hard, sparks have flown strongest not between Bersani and Berlusconi, but between Berlusconi and Monti.

Monti, in shifting from an above-the-fray technocrat to an off-with-the-gloves politician, has attacked Berlusconi as the ‘pied piper’ of Italian politics, mocked his ‘family values’ by referencing Berlusconi’s tawdry sex scandal-ridden past, and said that a victory for Berlusconi would be a ‘disaster’ for Italy.  Earlier this week, he attacked Berlusconi’s promise to abolish — and refund to taxpayers — an unpopular housing tax as a ruse to buy votes with money the Italian government doesn’t have.

Berlusconi, for his part, launched his campaign in December 2012 by accusing Monti of dragging Italy back into recession with ‘German-centric’ policies and, despite an odd offer before Christmas to step down in favor of a united Monti-led coalition, has hammered away at Monti’s efforts to appease European interests from Brussels to Berlin, efforts that Berlusconi claims have come at the cost of improving everyday life in Italy.

In the midst of the back-and-forth between il cavaliere and il professore, where exactly does that leave the centrosinistra? And how did Berlusconi and Monti, whose parties have arguably less support than either of Bersani’s PD or Grillo’s Five Star Movement, come to dominate the campaign?

Continue reading How the Italian election, Bersani’s to lose, became a Berlusconi-Monti dogfight

Lombardy looks to post-Formigoni era in toss-up regional elections

Inside Vittorio Emanuel II

Although Italy will hold national elections on February 24 and 25, three regions will hold elections as well — Lombardy, Lazio and Molise.

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None of those will be more important than those in Lombardy (or Lombardia in Italian), the most populous region of Italy and, as home to Milan, Italy’s financial and fashion capital, also its wealthiest region.

Since the fall of the so-called ‘first republic’ with the implosion of Italy’s Christian Democratic party in the early 1990s, the centrodestra (the center-right) has dominated regional politics in Lombardy and, since 1995, Roberto Formigoni has served as Lombardy’s regional president, consistently winning outsized victories against the centrosinistra (the center-left) in 2000, 2005 and most recently, 2010.

Formigoni (pictured below), however, is not running for reelection — he announced the resignation of the regional legislature in October 2012 after his colleague, Domenico Zambetti, was arrested for purchasing votes from the ‘Ndrangheta — the local organized crime operation of Calabria — during the 2010 elections.

As such, ending corruption in the region’s government has taken center-stage in one of Europe’s wealthiest regions.


Realistically, that means that the centrosinistra has its first real shot at winning regional power in Lombardy, though the centrodestra‘s strength is such that, despite its scandal-plagued woes, it remains very much capable of winning yet another term in power.

It would be nearly the equivalent of the Democrats in the United States taking control of the government of the state of Texas  — a political earthquake, even more of a surprise for the left than in the regional elections in Sicily in October 2012, when Rosario Crocetta became not only the island region’s first leftist president, but also its first openly gay president.

Voters will choose the regional president in a direct vote — the winner and the runner-up, as leader of the opposition, are guaranteed a seat in the 80-member Consiglio Regionale della Lombardia (Regional Council of Lombardy). The remaining 78 members of the Regional Council are selected pursuant to a proportional representation system, tied both to the presidential vote and to a separate party-list vote.

Polls show both the direct presidential vote and the vote for the Regional Council are incredibly tight.

Roberto Maroni, who became the national leader of the Lega Nord (LN, Northern League) in July 2012 after the resignation of longtime leader Umberto Bossi, is running as the candidate of the centrodestra — the Lega Nord‘s local branch in Lombardy is the Lega Lombardia (LL, Lombardy League), and it has been the longtime ally in Lombardy of the conservative Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) of Silvio Berlusconi.

Maroni (pictured below) has pledged to step down as the leader of the Lega Nord after the regional elections in February, regardless of whether he becomes the next regional president, apparently ending what’s been a long and fairly successful career in national politics.  Most recently, in Berlusconi’s previous government from 2006 to 2008, Maroni served as minister of the interior.


A victory for Maroni would not only showcase the strength of the centrodestra‘s hold on Lombardy, but would be a huge boost for the Lega Nord, which has advocated more autonomy for the relatively wealthier northeast and center-north of Italy — and, at times, even its complete secession from Italy.

The candidate of the centrosinistra, Umberto Ambrosoli, is the son of Giorgio Ambrosoli, an attorney murdered in 1979 as a result of his investigation into the irregularities of a the Mafia-connected banker, Michele Sindona.

Polls show each candidate winning between 35% and 40% of the vote, often trading leads. Continue reading Lombardy looks to post-Formigoni era in toss-up regional elections

Italian prime minister Mario Monti has a ‘Goldilocks’ problem


One of the enduring questions of the Italian election has been whether outgoing prime minister Mario Monti will run or not.Italy Flag Icon

Given the popularity of his reforms with the European Union leadership generally and with international investors, his return as prime minister after the February elections is by far their top preference.  Any indication that Italy will make a U-turn on its recent reforms could send Italian bond rates skyrocketing back to the 7%-and-climbing levels of November 2011.

Presumably, too, Monti would very much like to return for a longer term as prime minister to see through further reforms, further budget cuts, and be remembered as the ‘grown-up’ prime minister that put Italy on a long-term path for future growth.

But it’s an important question not just for Italy, but for all of Europe, and the U.S. economy as well.

Legally, of course, Monti cannot run for office in his own right because he’s a senator for life’ and thus, is unable run for a seat in Italy’s lower parliamentary house, the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies) — but that’s not really an answer as to whether he’s ‘running’ or not.

Over the weekend, Monti sort-of emerged as a candidate for the elections — he said he is ‘willing’ to lead a coalition of small centrist parties, each of which would vote to install Monti as prime minister for a second Monti-led government.  He had harsh words for Silvio Berlusconi, who has returned, despite his massive unpopularity, to lead the conservative Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) by asserting over the weekend that Berlusconi has demonstrated a ‘certain volatility in judgment’ — an incredibly muted criticism, perhaps, but a criticism nonetheless.  He continued his aggressive tone today with respect to Pier Luigi Bersani, who leads a center-left coalition that features the  Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), by urging Bersani to silence the extremists within his own alliance.

It’s an incredibly difficult tightrope walk for Monti, given that the polls show his coalition is set to finish no better than fourth, so the only way he can return as prime minister is through the election of a hung parliament.

Monti must at least provide a pro forma argument for supporting the ‘pro-Monti’ coalition, or he would risk minimizing the number of votes that will go to the ‘Monti coalition’ — without at least some floor of campaign activity from the incumbent prime minister himself, votes will inevitably slip away from the center to the two main center-right and center-left blocs, leading to what polls show would be a clear win for Bersani, not a hung parliament.

If Monti campaigns too hard, however, he risks diminishing his above-the-fray ‘technocratic’ mien.  He’s already done that now, to some degree, by directly engaging his political rivals.  But more fundamentally, if Monti campaigns too hard and voters are seen to have directly rejected Monti, he will have diminished not only his own political capital, but the cause of political reform that’s been his government’s chief aim.  His political rivals will feel even less pressure to continue Italy’s reformist path.  Continue reading Italian prime minister Mario Monti has a ‘Goldilocks’ problem