ITALY’S YOUNG PRIME MINISTER IN A HURRY, New Yorker, March 6, 2014
Sixty-three governments in sixty-eight years, with twenty-seven different Prime Ministers—so why should we care that Italy has a new government, with yet another Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi? It is understandable if observers find the dizzying nature of Italian politics exhausting and pointless. It can seem like a merry-go-round: the people on the painted horses change, but when the music stops we are in the same place. In the past twenty years, Italy’s problems have remained depressingly familiar: a stagnating economy, an enormous national debt, high unemployment, a large, inefficient bureaucracy, and a political and educational system that discourages initiative, innovation, merit, and opportunity.
And yet there are reasons to believe that Renzi, the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, will prove to be one of the more intriguing and long-lasting figures in Italian politics. At thirty-nine, he is the youngest Prime Minister in Italian history—younger even, by a couple of months, than the young Benito Mussolini when he was asked to form a government in the wake of his March on Rome, in 1922. Renzi’s youth matters because Italy is a country that has devolved into a gerontocracy: positions of power are occupied by men in their fifties, sixties, and seventies, while youth unemployment is above forty per cent. The job market is bifurcated between extraordinarily well-protected older workers who cannot be fired and younger people working on “precarious” temporary contracts, often making about a thousand euros (less than fourteen hundred dollars) a month. An astonishing percentage of young people live at home well into their thirties, waiting for a full-time job and the opportunity to marry. The most ambitious and energetic seek their fortunes overseas—in the U.K., France, or the United States. American universities are filled with brilliant young Italian academics who find it easier to break into the U.S. system than that of their own country, which functions, much like the country’s political system, according to the principles of cronyism, nepotism and seniority.
Renzi has the appeal of a young Bill Clinton or Tony Blair—smart, quick on his feet, and adept and well-prepared in public debate. His standard outfit is a plain white shirt, a tie, and a blazer; he looks a bit like a former choirboy, or a college athlete who has dressed up for a job interview. In 2009, when he was thirty-four, he was elected mayor of Florence, his native city. As mayor, he rode a bicycle to get around the city and drove his own car, even after becoming head of the Democratic Party. He has the brashness of someone who does not intend to wait in line, and he expresses the urgency of many younger Italians who fear that their generation’s hopes will be wasted. While still a new mayor, with only a local base of power, he insisted that Italy’s parties needed a rottomazione—a demolition plan. In 2012, he defied his own party by running against its leader, Pier Luigi Bersani, for the position of Party Secretary. He nearly pulled off an upset, but Bersani, with the Party apparatus behind him, managed, for a time, to hold on.
For the past thirty years, since Enrico Berlinguer, the old leader of the Italian Communist Party, collapsed with a brain hemorrhage in the middle of a political rally, the left has never had a genuinely appealing, charismatic leader. There has been, instead, a cast of gray technocrats with the communications skills of your average university economics professor. When Renzi challenged Bersani, every top leader of the Democratic Party had also been a member of the Italian Communist Party. The Communist tradition was that you rose slowly through the ranks, filling a series of administrative and political posts, and waited your turn. I recall Bersani explaining to me, in an interview five years ago, that Italy was fundamentally a conservative country, so there were a lot of limits to what the Party could do. And, to compensate for their past as former Communists, the old Democratic Party leaders worked overtime to appear “responsible,” visiting the City of London and Wall Street to show that they had nothing against capitalism and that their vision for managing the current system was relatively modest—they would just make it a bit more efficient and equitable.
Renzi came of age politically in the nineties, when the Cold War and the Italian Communist Party both ceased to exist. Perhaps because he never cherished a doomed, sweeping socialist agenda, he exudes a sense of optimism and possibility. Renzi casts the world in terms of new and old, rather than left and right, and insists that Italy can change radically. In one recent interview, he said: “We are about to send truckloads of tax forms to every town in Italy. Should we keep doing this, or can we solve this with a few keystrokes?”
At the same time, Renzi is a comparatively pragmatic centrist in his political positions. He favors cutting social-security payments in order to reduce taxes and increase the incomes of working people, paid for by cuts in public spending. He favors more extensive child-care coverage to encourage more women to go to work, and civil unions for gay and lesbian couples (same-sex marriage, in Catholic Italy, is not even on the table). He has come out in favor of changes in Italy’s labor laws to make it easier to fire workers, hoping to copy the “flexicurity” model pioneered by Denmark, whereby individual firms can hire and fire with relative freedom, but there is ample financial support and training for the unemployed.
Some have described Renzi as a kind of Silvio Berlusconi of the left, because he is a brilliant communicator who does nothing to hide his ambition. After a national election in 2013 that produced no clear winner, the Democratic Party’s Enrico Letta became Prime Minister. Rather than being a team player and supporting the Letta government until the next elections, Renzi began moving almost immediately to take over as Party Secretary. He succeeded in December of 2013. Berlusconi, the former Prime Minister, had meanwhile been given up on after his conviction for tax fraud and his expulsion from the Italian Senate. Renzi, very pragmatically, understood that, despite everything, Berlusconi was still the most powerful figure on the right, and that he would need his support if he wanted to push through radical reforms of the Italian political system. The deal he hammered out with Berlusconi calls for eliminating the Italian Senate—reducing the cost and size of Italy’s political class and making its system more functional. Currently, there are nine hundred and forty-five members of parliament (six hundred and thirty in the House and three hundred and fifteen in the Senate)—more than twice the number in the U.S., for a country with one-fifth the population. A proposed new electoral law is designed to foster the creation of a stable two-party system.
Many expected that once he had hammered out a new electoral law Renzi would call for elections and come to power with a solid majority. To everyone’s surprise, he did something different: he staged a kind of palace coup. Calling for a vote of his own party and obtaining an eighty per cent majority, he forced Letta out as Prime Minister and moved quickly to take his place. This deft but brutal power play—coupled with his negotiations with Berlusconi—struck many, especially on the left, as a sign that Renzi had shown himself to be another traditional Italian politician: all sharp elbows, with a taste for power and a lack of scruples. Indeed, there are reasons to be skeptical. But there is a decided logic in Renzi’s political blitzkrieg. His move took the country by surprise, setting everyone back on their heels, including Berlusconi. He did something that the left has failed to do in recent memory: seize the political initiative and set the political agenda on its terms. (The fact that Berlusconi was angry is an excellent sign: as a general rule of thumb, if Berlusconi is unhappy about something, it usually means good news for the country as a whole.) Renzi showing some Machiavellian toughness is not necessarily a bad thing: the left has generally shown an excessive preoccupation with procedure and allowed itself to be outmaneuvered and outmuscled by the center-right.
Renzi has laid out an incredibly ambitious legislative agenda. The obstacles he faces are enormous: reigniting the Italian economy, reforming deeply encrusted systems. On top of this, his power rests on a fragile set of political alliances; even in his own party, many might like to see him fail. His one real lever of power is the wave of popularity that his decisive action has generated. Should his measures fail, he can hold elections in which he will likely win. As Renzi said yesterday, in a public appearance: “Let’s see if Renzi can do it or whether he fails, as the Prime Minister were balanced on a tightrope and everyone else watching. It’s the typical attitude of people waiting for others to solve their problems. We are all on the tightrope, and Italy has to make it across.”
Above: Matteo Renzi in Florence, Italy on January 4th, 2014. Photograph by Laura Lezza/Getty.
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