By Luca Foschi
“Plain living and high thinking,” declared Italy’s incoming Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, quoting William Wordsworth during his speech at the Democratic Party’s (PD) national assembly on February the 13th.
He entered the rooms of Via del Nazareno in Rome as Mayor of Florence and Secretary General of the government’s ruling party, a position he gained with a landslide victory in December’s primary elections. “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by”, Renzi added from the podium, reciting Robert Frost or, most probably, Keating in “Dead poets society”.
With 136 yes votes and only 16 voting against the new PM – dramatically stabbing the party’s fellow Enrico Letta in the back – the assembly decided to vote in favour of a new government. Led by the Italian equivalent to Tony Blair, the infant prodigy and the post ideological bully of a new Renaissance Matteo Renzi was sworn in with his 16 new ministers on Saturday the 22nd in front of President Giorgio Napolitano. After attending the formalities at the Qurinale Palace, the 39 year-old PM moved to his new political residence in Palazzo Chigi. The bell-transfer between Letta and Renzi, a traditional ceremony that marks the passage of power, lasted only ten seconds, highlighting a possible fracture within the left-wing party.
Renzi is the third non-elected prime minister in two and a half years. The first, Mario Monti, was called by Napolitano in November 2011 to save Italy from bankruptcy after a letter from Brussels humiliated the notorious Berlusconi and his high-risk economic policy based on public debt. The differential gap between the Italian BTP and the German Bund, the government securities, had risen up to 575. Italy, like Greece, wouldn’t have been able to honour his debts. The “Troika” formed by the EU, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund demanded a series of reforms. A majority of “national unity” formed mainly by Berlusconi’s right-wing PDL and the Democratic Party was called to support Monti’s draconian decrees.
The “technicians’” government collapsed in December 2012, deprived of PDL’s votes and cracked by increasing tensions within the unnatural majority. A harsh electoral campaign began on the back of virulent anti-party rhetoric of “Movimento 5 stelle”, a populist movement lead by the comedian Beppe Grillo. While Berlusconi exploited his hegemony of the media system the Democratic Party chose his candidate through the primary elections. Pierluigi Bersani won (61.1 per cent vs 38 per cent), over Renzi “il rottamatore”, who joined the competition pledging to “demolish” the old transformist tradition within his own party.
The outcome of the February ballot is a political nightmare. Due to a perverse electoral system, designed in 2005 by Belusconi to cripple Romano Prodi’s momentum in 2006 vote, the senate results divided in almost equal shares by PD, PDL and Movimento 5 Stelle. A complete paralysis is overcome only with the umpteenth intervention of president Napolitano, who exceptionally (first time in Italian history) was elected for a second mandate. A “large-coalition” forces the arch-enemies of PD and PDL to collaborate in avoiding Grillo’s “menace” and insisting on the path of reforms, leading to the appointment of 47 year-old Letta as Prime Minister.
Influenced by common interests and perspectives Letta’s government moved at glacial pace in an attempt to break the economic stall and dramatic increase in the unemployment rates. In August Silvio Berlusconi, now senator, was sentenced by the High Court to four years for fiscal fraud and the ex PM demands a political safe conduct that the parliament refuse to concede. In retaliation he calls his deputies out of the majority, trying to sink its precarious balance. But there was a surprise to come in the form of his heir Angelino Alfano, who in November decided to abandon the embarrassing mentor and form a new right-wing party, “Nuovo Centro Destra” (NCD), including all the ministers working in Letta’s government and a consistent number of senators.
In December Renzi has his revenge. PD’s primary elections for the secretary role went in his favor. The Florence maverick wins with the 68% (two million voters) over Gianni Cuperlo, an expression of the old ruling class and Pippo Civati, representative of the most radical stance within the party. Heir of an old centrist school, young, openly ambitious, excellent communicator both on TV and social media, Renzi has based his momentum more on an historical necessity than on a clear political agenda, surfing the giant and lethal waves of a perfect storm.
While the country’s appreciation for the political establishment falls toward a dangerous limit, represented by Grillo’s verbal violence and by the continuously abstaining (around half of the voters), the Italian ancient dilemmas remain unresolved: the frustrating maze of burocracy, the inability to intercept the stream of a globalised economy thwarted by a flabby legal system that deters foreign investment, poisoned by organised crime, corruption, tax evasion and, above all, by an electoral mechanism that forbids the formation of an efficient bipolar political system.
“All my support to Letta” and “I’ll never take the power without the people’s vote” Renzi repeats after his triumph in the ballot. In truth, since the beginning the new secretary has put growing pressure on a government showing signs of weariness. The first political strike comes in January when Renzi starts talks for a new electoral system. He meets the “devil” himself, a convicted, overshadowed Silvio Berlusconi, leader of the opposition and father for more than six million Italians. The deal revolves around a double stage vote strengthened by a “majority reward” and a high threshold for the parties outside the coalitions, a pattern that would dramatically simplify the presence in Parliament.
The slow, prudent, hesitating pace of Letta’s leadership is doomed. During the first week of February Letta has to face increasing criticisms from the business and Unions while Renzi is gently pushed forward by hiw own party and even by a revived Berlusconi, who sends flattening words
The time for high thinking has come. It’s all or nothing for Renzi, the new man who reached power in the oldest way, in the corridors, by compromise, leaping over the people’s vote. President Napolitano can only ratify what the impulses from the economic and political complex have dictated.
“I’m coming! I’m coming! #thisisit” tweeted Renzi while approaching the Qurinale to be sworn after a week of incredible pressure passed toiling over a real political program and the new minister’s team, the youngest and more women-friendly in Italian history. Renzi will try to proceed with two different majorities: the same Letta had at disposal, made by PD, NCD and the ruins of Scelta Civica (a centrist party created by Mario Monti); an enlarged majority joined by Berlusconi and his new Forza Italia, necessary to change the 1948’s Constitution and to attack the structural issues.
“We’ll cut the costs of politics and change the Constitution in March”, face the “Job act” in April and “taxes, justice and public administration in May” announced the new Prime Minister boldly. homework to be done before the Italian presidency semester of the European Union, which Renzi hopes to manage renegotiating the “Fiscal compact” and the austerity diktat that triggered the Italian inferno. A divine comedy that sends a shiver down the spine.
If the poet’s ascent is interrupted by sin Italy could be hurled down like Lucifer.