Italy's new politics

Italy has this year jumped to a new generation of politicians. What happens now in one of the West's most chaotic and entertaining political systems?

Berlusconi and Renzi: The old and new
Tim Hedges
On 13 December 2013 09:15

Important news lost in a more important development, like CS Lewis dying on the same day as Princess Diana: such was the fate of Matteo Salvini, who had stood for the leadership of the Northern League, Italy’s surprisingly popular anti-immigration, anti-southern party, against its founder and icon Umberto Bossi.

Salvini scored a resounding victory, and Bossi, whose family have been embroiled in allegations of embezzlement, is consigned to history.

The more important news was the result of the primaries for leader of the Democratic Party (PD), which rules the governing coalition. Here, no one was surprised at a decisive victory by Matteo Renzi, Mayor of Florence, with two thirds of the vote.

Italy has this year jumped to a new generation of politicians, or nearly:

Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, 47; Centre- Left (PD), Matteo Renzi, 38; Centre Right (NCD), Angelino Alfano, 43; Northern League, Matteo Salvini, 40; Left, Nichi Vendola, 55; Right Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi, 76.

OK, there’s one exception there, but Silvio will be forced to appoint a Vicar on Earth now that he is banned from the Senate. Equally Beppe Grillo (65) has Vito Crimi (41) and Roberta Lombardi (40).

So, the protagonists are young, they’re chomping at the bit, what happens now?

The first problem is that the Constitutional Committee decided, after eight years, that the electoral law, known as the Porcellum, or Pigsty, was unconstitutional, in two respects: firstly that it provided for closed lists so no one knew who they were voting for, they vote for a party and the party supplies the MP.

Secondly, the winning party, even if it won by a fraction of a percent, was allocated a huge chunk of seats to give it a workable majority. This was deemed too unproportional.

So, before there is an election, before these new boys start parading themselves before the voters, there will have to be a new electoral law passed. Almost everybody is prepared to do some sort of deal to get it through and get on with the politics.

The exception is the Prime Minister Enrico Letta. He is of the PD but did not stand in the primaries so will not be involved in the elections unless he creates his own political party. Letta would like to stay on until 2015, score a few successes and then offer his enhanced saviour of the nation status to the electorate. Quick work on an electoral law won’t help this aim.

But that would freeze out Renzi, who, to be fair, has just won an election as leader of his party. He feels his youthful charisma would drive the PD to success in a general election, and he wants his chance soon.

The barrier to success is, as so often, Europe. In the second half of 2014 Italy is due to hold the rotating presidency of the EU. To avoid confusion this is the Presidency of the Council of the European Union, not the presidency of the European Council, held by Herman van Rompuy, or the Presidency of the European Commission (Jose Manuel Barroso) or the Presidency of the European Parliament (Martin Schultz), none of whom rotate or would dream of doing so.

Presidency of the Council is largely a ceremonial office, proposing policies which have been written by the bureaucrats who don’t care who reads them out. But it does mean you can’t be holding elections in the middle of your term. It just wouldn’t do.

So those who want elections next year (principally Renzi and Berlusconi) will have to get the change to the electoral law pushed through so they can be held in the first half of the year. Berlusconi has openly told a French radio station that he is already in election mode, expecting a poll on 24th May (he was giving this as a reason why he could not be arrested).

And it will come as a shock to many in Europe, but this most remarkable of politicians is in with a chance.

The reasoning is as follows: Renzi sees that Letta will try to hold on, make a formal alliance with Alfano and offer himself to the electorate, which would effectively spell the end of Renzi and the PD, so he pushes for an election, claiming Letta has been too subservient to Europe and not relaxed austerity.

The left is divided between Renzi and Letta, Alfano of the new centre right is forgotten, and up pops a grinning Silvio at the winning post. It is by no means impossible.

Critical in it all will be Beppe Grillo, himself capable of splitting the left, from where most of his votes come.

Firstly, how amenable to a new electoral law will he be? Secondly, how will he do in another election? In the last one, which seems a long time ago but was only in February, he took votes from the centre-left run by Pierluigi Bersani, a politician from another age, and a centre run by the unpopular Mario Monti, who had been parachuted in by Angela Merkel. How will he fare against a new, younger left?

There is all to play for, as soon as Italy has a viable electoral system.

In other news, a series of protests from the anti-establishment Pitchfork Movement  began to fizzle out when its leader was photographed leaving a demonstration in a Jaguar. And Berlusconi’s little white dog, Dudù, has opened a website in support of less fortunate dogs (those in left-wing, non-billionaire households). It is called Forza Dudù.

Tim Hedges had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelance writer, novelist, and farmer

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