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What to expect from Italy’s new government

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

Consider Italy’s new government renzismo without Renzi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Italian banks on the brink

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

So much for dog whistles.

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

Don’t let them.

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

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

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

Renzi brings down Letta government, expected to become PM


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

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

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

Letta will resign as prime minister tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

Renzi, Berlusconi team up for electoral law pact


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the Alfano-Berlusconi split means for Italian politics


Et tu, Angelino?Italy Flag Icon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letta discusses political stability in Washington on day after US gov’t shutdown ends


It’s astonishing that in his hour at the Brookings Institution earlier today, Italian prime minister Enrico Letta mentioned ‘Tea Party’ once, but the words ‘Berlusconi,’ ‘Lampedusa,’ or even ‘election law’ never escaped his lips. Italy Flag Icon

Letta said that he was following with interest the current political standoff in the United States over the debt ceiling and the government shutdown, especially with respect to the relationship between debt yields and political stability.  Letta, who is in Washington DC this week, met with US president Barack Obama earlier today, the day that the US federal government reopened after a 16-day shutdown:

This is why… I was so interested in understanding what’s happening here [in the United States], the discussion with the tea parties, the Republican Party and so on. It was something very interesting for me, of course, because of the future of the discussion of the political parties and of the discussion around the problem of the debt, around the problem of how to deal in a bipartisan way.

It’s saying something quite spectacular when an Italian prime minister, who leads Italy’s 64th postwar government, can compare the instability of the American political system to that of Italy’s system, where, most recently, former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi tried to cause Letta’s government to fall just 15 days ago.  Letta leads a ‘grand coalition’ among his own party, the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Berlusconi’s center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom), and a small group of centrists led by former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti.

Despite the precarious nature of Italy’s coalition government, Letta — with a professional, earnest, mild-mannered mien — has tried to project an aura of stability.  Letta is keenly aware that the perception of Italy’s own political instability could be the difference between a future of economic growth and dynamism and a future of demographic decline and economic stagnancy.

From today’s remarks, you may have gotten the sense that Letta thinks that a more integrated European Union and greater domestic political stability will be enough to transform Italy — he even said that the difference between the Italian government’s paying 3% interest rates and 6% interest rates is the difference between the sun and the moon.

But does a solution to Italy’s political and economic problems lie solely in the balance between 3% and 6% yields? Continue reading Letta discusses political stability in Washington on day after US gov’t shutdown ends

Letta survives no-confidence vote easily as Berlusconi suffers humiliating defeat


For one day, at least, gerontocratic Italy was no country for old men.Italy Flag Icon

In his address to the Italian Senato (Senate), center-left prime minister Enrico Letta, just five months into the job, quoted former postwar Italian president Luigi Einaudi to announce as much to his allies and enemies alike in a speech that preceded a confidence vote for his beleaguered government:

Nella vita delle istituzione l’errore di non saper cogliere l’attimo puo’ essere irreparabile. [In the lives of nations, the mistake of not knowing how to seize the fleeting moment is irreparable.]

Italian politics, if nothing else, provides many fleeting moments, and Letta (at age 47, one of Italy’s youngest prime ministers) today seized a huge victory, as did Angelino Alfano, the 42-year-old center-right deputy prime minister and minister of the interior.  Both seized their moments at the expense of 77-year-old Silvio Berlusconi, who remains the central figure in Italian politics 19 years after his first election as prime minister — though perhaps not for much longer.

Letta easily won a vote of confidence in his government after a showdown that ultimately caused more damage to Italy’s centrodestra (center-right) than to Letta’s government that began four days ago when Berlusconi tried to pull his party’s five ministers out of the current coalition government and thereby end Letta’s short-lived government in favor of early elections.

Alfano, Berlusconi’s top deputy, defied Berlusconi by indicating he would vote to support Letta’s government.  With Alfano, other current ministers and at least 25 rebels from Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) prepared to do the same, Berlusconi himself relented at the last minute and instructed all of the PdL’s senators to support Letta, who thereupon easily won a vote of no confidence by a margin of 270 to 135.  Letta leads an unwieldy grand coalition of center-right PdL senators, senators from Letta’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) and a handful of centrist, Christian Democratic and other pro-reform senators who support former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti.

But neither Letta’s victory nor Berlusconi’s retreat will come close to solving the problems Italy, its government, its economy, its political system and its political parties face in the months ahead: Continue reading Letta survives no-confidence vote easily as Berlusconi suffers humiliating defeat

Toward a pink-blue coalition: how House Democrats can rescue Boehner’s speakership


Last week, I noted that German chancellor Angela Merkel succeeded in achieving the post-partisanship in Germany that US president Barack Obama had hoped to achieve when he ran for president in 2008.USflag

While that’s somewhat of an unfair comparison given the collegiality and consensus that’s developed in Germany’s postwar politics, there’s perhaps a lesson for US politicians to learn from the example of German politics in resolving the current standoff that has shut down the federal government of the United States and threatens to precipitate a sovereign debt crisis later this month over the US debt ceiling.

Even after Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats won a once-in-a-generation landslide victory, she remains five seats of an absolute majority in Germany’s Bundestag (the lower house of the German parliament) and well short of a majority in the Bundesrat (the upper house), so she’s locked in negotiations — likely for the rest of the year — to form a viable governing coalition with either her rival center-left Social Democrats or the slightly more leftist Green Party.

Contrast that to the United States, where a minority of a party that controls one-half of one branch of the American government has now succeeding in effecting a shutdown of the US government.

In the US House of Representatives today, speaker John Boehner (generally) operates on the ‘Hastert rule.’  He’ll only bring bills to the floor of the House that are supported by a ‘majority of the majority’ — a majority of the 232-member Republican caucus.  So even if 115 Republicans and all 200 Democrats in the House support a bill, such as a clean ‘continuing resolution’ to end the current shutdown, they won’t be able to do so if 117 Republicans prefer to condition a continuing resolution upon a one-year delay of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, popularly known as ‘Obamacare.’

It’s not uncommon in parliamentary systems for the ‘loyal opposition’ to sometimes lend their support for an important piece of legislation.  Earlier this year in the United Kingdom, British prime minister David Cameron passed a marriage equality law only with the support of the opposition Labour Party in the House of Commons in light of antipathy within a certain segment of the center-right Conservative Party to same-sex marriage.

In country after country in Europe, including Greece, Ireland and Latvia, traditional rivals on the left and right have sucked up the political costs of austerity and voted to accept difficult reforms, tax increases and tough budget cuts in the face of rising unemployment and depression-level economies in order to avoid the further tumult of being pushed out of the eurozone’s single currency.  If Italy’s left and right could support former prime minister Mario Monti’s technocratic government for 15 months, it’s not outside the realm of democratic tradition to believe that Boehner could form a working coalition in the US House to resolve a crisis that threatens not only American political credibility in the world and the American economy, but the entire global economy.

But as Alex Pareene at Salon wrote earlier today, the United States doesn’t have a parliamentary system, it has a presidential system where an opposition party that controls one house of Congress can cause a crisis if it wants to do so:

An American parliamentary system with proportional representation wouldn’t immediately or inexorably lead to a flourishing social democracy, but it would at least correct the overrepresentation of an ideological minority, and cut down on intentional tactical economic sabotage. The reason we’re in permanent crisis mode isn’t “extremism,” but a system of government that guarantees political brinkmanship.

There’s a bit of ‘grass is always greener’ mentality to that counterfactual.  Parliamentary systems come with their own set of difficulties, and governments in parliamentary systems can wind up just as paralyzed as the current American government seems to be — former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi is causing a political crisis this very week in Italy that will culminate in a vote of no confidence on Wednesday against the fragile coalition headed by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta.  Though the government’s been in power for just five months, Italy could face its second set of elections in 12 months if Letta’s government falls.  Belgium famously went without a government for 535 days between 2009 and 2011 because no majority coalition could form a government.  Moreover, minority governments in parliamentary systems often lurch from crisis to crisis, with individual lawmakers willing and able to ‘hold up’ the government’s legislation.

But the United States need not change its entire system of government to take away a few lessons from Merkel and from Germany.

Juliet Eilperin and Zachary A. Goldfarb at The Washington Post suggested earlier Tuesday that Boehner make a push to become the first truly bipartisan speaker:

[T]he press tends to trumpet two unflattering themes: that Boehner can neither manage his own conference nor make a credible deal with the White House. As a result, the narrative runs, Americans are left careening from fiscal crisis to fiscal crisis, and Congress can’t even tackle popular initiatives such as immigration reform. A host of other potential changes supported by huge swaths of both parties — from tax and entitlement reform to infrastructure spending — are also left on the table just because of the fallout Boehner faces from a few dozen, ultra-conservative Republicans.

At least that’s the rap against Boehner, whose speakership so far has been defined by blocking Obama’s priorities rather than producing significant laws. But that could all change if he were just to decide to say to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): “Let’s enter a grand coalition. Democrats will vote for me for speaker as long as Republicans hold a majority. And we’ll do a budget deal that raises a little bit of tax revenue and reforms entitlements. We’ll overhaul the tax code for individuals and businesses. We’ll pass immigration reform and support the infrastructure spending that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and labor unions want.”

Call it a pink-blue coalition — the moderate Republicans and the Democrats.  (Or maybe the donkey-rhino‡ coalition). Continue reading Toward a pink-blue coalition: how House Democrats can rescue Boehner’s speakership

Does this week’s political crisis in Italy represent Berlusconi’s last stand?


The United States isn’t the only country in the world hurtling toward a governance crisis this week.Italy Flag Icon

On Saturday, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi pulled the five center-right members out of the governing coalition that’s been headed for five months by center-left prime minister Enrico Letta (pictured above, right) and called for snap elections.  The Italian stock market plunged this morning, Italian debt yields are already slightly rising and, once again, Italy, despite the best efforts of president Giorgio Napolitano, may well be headed to its second set of elections within 12 months — a move that would introduce new uncertainty within the eurozone at a time when most European leaders and global investors hoped the worst of the European economic crisis was over.

The big question is whether this truly marks the onset of another government collapse in Italy’s long-running political drama.  There’s reason to believe it’s more the last gasp of a disgraced former leader than a principled stand over competing visions for Italy’s budget and finances.  Berlusconi will shortly begin a year-long prison sentence (though due to his age, it’s likely to be house arrest or community service) after exhausting his appeals of a tax fraud conviction stemming from his leadership of Mediaset.  Berlusconi also faces appeals for conviction on charges of paying for sex with a minor and abuse of power in trying to cover it up that carries a seven-year prison sentence.  Most immediately, however, Berlusconi is angry that Italy’s parliament hasn’t lined up to lift a public service ban that now applies to Berlusconi in the wake of his tax fraud conviction.  At age 77 and 19 years after he first become Italy’s prime minister, Berlusconi faces the indignity of being stripped of his senatorial seat in October and being banned from the next election.

It’s never smart to bet against Berlusconi, whose wealth, media power and longevity in power makes him easily the most influential political leader in Italy — even today.  In the February parliamentary elections, he boosted the Italian center-right (centrodestra) coalition to within a razor-thin margin of defeating the center-left (centrosinistra) coalition.  But it’s not hard to see the latest political moment as Berlusconi lashing out in order to pull one last rabbit out of his magical political hat.  Earlier today, Berlusconi accused Napolitano of colluding with Italian judges against him.

If Berlusconi can bluster his way to early elections, he could potentially bring about a new parliament, especially with the center-left fractured ahead of a leadership election on December 8.  But that’s a big ‘if,’ and as Monday closed in Rome, there were signs that members within Berlusconi’s ranks were none too pleased with his strategy.

The center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), which narrowly won February’s parliamentary elections, holds a strong majority in the Camera dei Deputati (House of Deputies) due to election laws that provide a ‘winner’s bonus’ to the party with the most support.  It’s more chaotic in the Senato (the Senate), where seats are allocated on a state-by-state basis and where no party holds an absolute majority:


Realistically, that means no government can form without the Democrats, but that the Democrats alone cannot govern without allies in the Senate.  When the protest, anti-austerity Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) refused to enter a governing coalition with the Democrats, the only potential coalition was a ‘grand coalition’ between the Democrats and Berlusconi’s Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom).  Berlusconi has since rechristened the PdL as Forza Italia, the name of his original center-right political party in the 1990s.

So Berlusconi assented and Letta formed the government in May after a gridlocked spring when Italy had merely a caretaker government and its parliament failed numerous times to elect a new president — it ultimately reelected Napolitano to another seven-year term.  For good measure, five regional senators and 19 centrist senators from the coalition headed by Mario Monti (the former pro-reform, technocratic prime minister between 2011 and 2013) joined the coalition.  That gave Letta a coalition in the upper house that includes 233 out of the 315 elected senators.

But the coalition has never been incredibly stable, as you might expect.  On the surface, the current crisis revolves around the budget (just like in the United States) — Letta and the Democrats want to allow Italy’s VAT to rise from 21% to 22%, and Berlusconi prefers to find savings within the budget to keep the VAT from rising.  The failure to find those savings last Friday precipitated Berlusconi to pull the PdL’s ministers out of the government.  The risk is that the budget deficit will rise above 3% of Italian GDP, violating the European Union’s fiscal compact and potentially causing a rise in Italian debt yields. Continue reading Does this week’s political crisis in Italy represent Berlusconi’s last stand?

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

Who is Plamen Oresharski?


The good news is that after months of uncertainty, Bulgaria has a new government.bulgaria flag

The bad news is that, in taking office, the new Bulgarian prime minister Plamen Oresharski warned his country that he wouldn’t make them rich and prosperous, but that he would work to ensure that over the course of his potentially four-year term in power, he would work to bring more hope and confidence that Bulgaria is ‘on the right track.’

Talk about lowering expectations.

After losing power in July 2009 just months after the global financial crisis, prime minister Sergei Stanishev and the center-left Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, Българска социалистическа партия) and its allies triumphed in the parliamentary elections earlier this month over his successor, Boyko Borissov and the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, Граждани за европейско развитие на България).

So within two election cycles, Bulgarians have swung from the left to the right and, having indicated their dissatisfaction with both, are turning to a modified center-left government, with Oresharski, a former finance minister leading a semi-technocratic government supported by the Bulgarian Socialists and the third-largest party in Bulgaria’s parliament, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS, Движение за права и свободи), a liberal party that represents ethnic Turks and other Muslims.

Oresharski served as finance minister in Stanishev’s previous government from 2005 to 2009 in a career that’s spanned working in Bulgaria’s finance ministry since the early 1990s.  As finance minister, he worked to lower the Bulgarian corporate tax rate to 10% in 2007 and then followed up with a flat-tax rate of 10% on all personal income in 2008.

As prime minister, Oresharski has appointed Petar Chobanov as his own finance minister.  Chobanov himself is not technically a member of the Bulgarian Socialists, though he led the finance ministry’s forecasting agency under Oresharski in the previous government.  Chobanov, like Oresharski, leans toward a conservative fiscal policy in a country that, unlike much of Europe, has a strong budgetary outlook — its public debt load is just around 18% of GDP.  Nonetheless, Bulgaria hasn’t escaped the stagnant economic conditions that have plagued the rest of Europe, with GDP growth of less than 2%, an unemployment rate of 12.6% as of spring 2013, and an aging, declining population that’s shrunk by nearly 1.5 million since the 1980s.  Bulgaria and its neighbor Romania remain the two poorest countries in the European Union.  Continue reading Who is Plamen Oresharski?

Rome mayoral race heads to tense June runoff between center-left, center-right coalition partners


If you’re were the United States and you’re like me, you spent your Memorial Day partying like it was the next Cinco de Cuatro.Italy Flag Icon

But in Italy, citizens were once again headed to the polls in local elections, and the most significant among the races is the mayoral race in Rome, Italy’s capital, and the ‘eternal city’ that so many centuries ago served as the center of the vast empire that stretched from Central Asia to Great Britain.

Today, while the scope of SPQR is more limited, it’s nonetheless the top municipal prize in the country.  Moreover, in the fractured world of Italian politics, it’s become an even more significant prize following February’s inconclusive national elections, and the weekend’s result will lead to more political tension over the next fortnight as the top two candidates face off in a June 9-10 runoff.

With a fragile ‘grand coalition’ government between the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) and former prime minister Mario Monti’s Scelta Civica (SC, Civic Change), the PD’s Ignazio Marino (pictured above) and the PdL incumbent, Gianni Alemanno, will spend the next 14 days in a direct contest between the two dominant parties of Italy’s government.

While the mayoral race has been viewed as a test of Berlusconi’s enduring popularity, the campaign has focused more on local issues and the personalities of the two major candidates, Marino and Alemanno.  The more significant effect is that while prime minister Enrico Letta looks to his second month as Italy’s premier, and the coalition government attempts to craft a new election law, its two largest parties will be fighting against each other in a high-profile election for the next two weeks.  It’s hardly a recipe for good governance in a country with little recent experience of consensus-driven ‘grand coalitions,’ like in The Netherlands or Germany.

In early results, Marino had won around 42.60% of the vote, with Alemanno trailing at 30.27% support.  Marcello De Vito, the candidate of the opposition Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), was far behind in third place after a disappointing result for the protest movement in many of the weekend’s local elections.

Marino is somewhat of a rising star within the Democratic Party — a former organ transplant surgeon, Marino came to politics in 2006, winning election as an Italian senator.  Since then, Marino has become one of his party’s chief voices on national health care.

With Marino just 7.4% short of outright victory last weekend, Alemanno seems unlikely to emerge from the runoff victorious, though he’s certain to spend the next two weeks fighting a vicious campaign for reelection.  Alemanno, with ties to Italy’s far right, was always somewhat out of step with Rome’s centrist electorate after two two-term stints by moderate leftists, Francesco Rutelli and Walter Veltroni.

Alemanno won a narrow 2008 election victory against Rutelli by emphasizing law-and-order issues, and his victory was somewhat marred by the support of supporters who chanted ‘Duce! Duce!‘ upon his victory five years ago, highlighting his ties to the neo-fascist right.  Since taking office, he passed an ordinance banning prostitution on the streets and has emphasized deporting illegal immigrants who commit crimes, while receiving criticism for segregating Roma minorities in camps far beyond the city’s center.  He’s also faced the slings and arrows that accompany any big-city mayor — less money to fund municipal services in an era of economic recession and austerity, criticism that his government didn’t respond adequately to Rome’s 2012 snowstorm and attacks that Rome’s burdened subway system is falling apart.  Continue reading Rome mayoral race heads to tense June runoff between center-left, center-right coalition partners

Letta unveils government short on Berlusconi allies, long on economists


White smoke from Rome — Italy has a new prime minister and a new government, just over two months after Italy’s inconclusive election results at the end of February.Italy Flag Icon

Just three days after Italian president Giorgio Napolitano invited Enrico Letta, deputy leader of the Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party), to form a new government, he has done so.  As widely expected, it’s a broad ‘grand coalition’ with the Popolo della Libertà (PdL, People of Freedom) of Silvio Berlusconi, and it leaves both the PD’s electoral ally, the more leftist Sinistra Ecologia Libertà (SEL, Left Ecology Freedom) and the PdL’s autonomist ally, the Lega Nord (Northern League), in opposition along with the movement led by Beppe Grillo, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement).

So what does the Letta government’s composition tell us?

The most initial word upon the government’s announcement is that of its relative youth and the record number of women.  That’s very important, of course, especially in Italy, which has long seemed like a country governed exclusively by old men.  Napolitano himself is 87 years old and Berlusconi, age 76, first won power in 1994.

The most striking thing is the extent to which the new cabinet members come from Letta’s own party or otherwise come from — or wouldn’t seem too out-of-place in — the government of outgoing technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, who ran in his won right in the February elections as a force for centrist reform.

Monti himself will not be a minister in the  new government, but Anna Maria Cancellieri, Monti’s minister of the interior and widely regarded minister mentioned as both a potential prime minister and even as president, will become Letta’s minister of justice.  Mario Mauro, a former PdL senator who resigned from the PdL to join Monti’s Scelta Civica (SC, Civic Choice), will be the new secretary of defense.  Enzo Moavero Milanesi will remain as Letta’s minister for Europe, the same role he played in Monti’s government.

Perhaps the most important pick is Italy’s new finance minister, Fabrizio Saccomanni (pictured above), who like Monti before him, is a technocratic economist and the secretary general of the Banca d’Italia, which makes him essentially the deputy head of Italy’s central bank.  Joining him as the minister of labor is Enrico Giovannini, since 2009 the director of Italian Statistical Institute, formerly director of statistics at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development from 2001 to 2009.  Their appointments signal that Letta’s government will attempt to be more than just a short-lived placeholder before new elections in the autumn, and expect that they will push more reforms — perhaps even greater economic reforms than Monti’s government was able to enact.

Flavio Zanonato, mayor of Padua, a former member of the Italian Communist Party, and a strong supporter of the PD’s outgoing leader Pier Luigi Bersani, will become the minister for economic development.

Maria Chiara Carrozza, minister of education, and Andrea Orlando, minister of environment, are both up-and-coming PD deputies.

The Congo-born Cécile Kyenge, minister for integration, will be Italy’s first-ever black minister, and Josefa Idem, a West German-born and former Gold medal Olympic sprinter, will be minister for sport.

Berlusconi’s top deputy and the prime ministerial candidate of the centrodestra (center-right) in the prior elections, Angelino Alfano will take the largest PdL role in the new government as deputy prime minister and secretary of the interior, trading portfolios with Cancellieri — Alfano served as Berlusconi’s justice minister from 2008 to 2011. Maurizio Lupi, a reliable Berlusconi ally and a former Christian Democrat from Milan, will be secretary of defense.  Nunzia De Girolamo, a young rising star in the PdL — she’s not even 40 — will be the new minister of agriculture.

One face I didn’t expect to see in the government was that of Franco Frattini, Berlusconi’s former foreign minister, though as one of the most respected ministers of Berlusconi’s former cabinet, I would not have been surprised to see him emerge.  He’s currently trying to win the post of secretary general at NATO in 2014.

Emma Bonino, a women’s rights and human rights champion, who was also mentioned as a candidate for the Italian presidency, a longtime member of the Italian Radical Party in the 1980s, a European commissioner for health and consumer protection in the 1990s and the minister for European affairs and international trade in Romano Prodi’s government from 2006 to 2008, Bonino will be a welcomed choice for foreign minister both in Europe and beyond.