Il Gattopardo in Italy: All change or no change?

The way in which elites across the democratic world cynically seek to rig the system to protect themselves is now being played out in Italy. After the failed referendum, the powers that be are scrambling to avoid real change. Sound familiar?

Paolo Gentiloni. Italy's new PM
Tim Hedges
On 17 December 2016 10:57

A while ago, the American journalist turned Italian, Alan Friedman, wrote a book called Ammazziamo il Gattopardo (let’s kill the ocelot). It was a reference to the celebrated book by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Il Gattopardo (the title wrongly translated into English as the Leopard).

Lampedusa’s book, about an aristocrat during the Risorgimento, contained the famous line ‘everything must change so that everything can remain the same’. It is often said that this quotation is symptomatic of Italy; a conspiracy to keep the ruling class in power by concealing it behind a smokescreen of almost revolutionary change.

And so indeed it has been in Italy: there have been 65 governments since the war, and their average life expectancy has only got past a year because Berlusconi got one to last its full term and another three years.

Friedman’s book interviewed senior political figures to ask them if they thought the quotation was relevant today, and if anything could be done about it. The one who most agreed, who was most incensed at the reluctance to change, was outgoing Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

The question now being asked is ‘was Renzi a victim of the Gattopardo or a supporter?’

We can see the Gattopardo in action right now, in Italy’s reluctance to undergo necessary fundamental change, as it goes through the process of enacting a superficial one. Renzi asked the President to appoint former Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni as the new Prime Minister.

Gentiloni, in a nod to Lampedusa, is an aristocrat known as the Cold One for his reserved attitude towards his more proletarian colleagues. But it is not the aristocracy being protected here. Gentiloni may be cold, he certainly lacks charisma, but he is a reliable Renzista, a supporter of the outgoing Prime Minister.

In this respect, the recent manoeuvres uphold the quotation and the national reputation. We have achieved change but – surprise! – all the same figures are in place. Ministerial posts are almost unchanged. Renzi has retained his leadership of the Democratic Party and is waiting in the wings ready to take back the reins of power. If all this works, the faithful Gentiloni will be a shoo-in for the next president.

However, the plan is far from watertight. As well as the little matter of sorting out the banks, Gentiloni must push through a new electoral law. Renzi had passed the Italicum law last year but it did not apply to the senate because he was intending emasculating it through the referendum.

Having failed to do this, Italy now has one law for electing the senate and one for the chamber of deputies, a fiasco, to use an Italian word, which cannot subsist.

The Italicum law worked by proportional representation but contained a provision that the winning party should be gifted a hefty majority of seats. It was only marginally less complicated than the Porcellum, or pigsty law, it was replacing.

The Italicum was pushed through at a time when everyone was certain that the winner would be either the Democrats or Silvio’s Forza Italia, the usual gang.

Now however the upstart 5-Star Movement would be the most likely winner, and no one wants to gift them a majority. It now seems likely the main parties will club together to return to proportional representation to keep Beppe Grillo’s mob out of power.

5-Star’s problem under PR is that it won’t or can’t go into a coalition with anyone else. It won’t because it doesn’t trust the other parties. It can’t because its very raison d’être is that it is different and has nothing in common with them: its supporters would cry foul.

So 5-Star is demanding an election now, before the law is changed to keep them out. But here it comes up against the extraordinary venality of Italian politicians.

New MPs, and there were many at the last election, don’t get a pension (about €800 a month) unless they have served a minimum period, and that only expires in September, so the last thing they are going to do is vote for early elections. Turkeys don’t vote for Christmas and Italians don’t vote for change.

It seems that even in 2016 Lampedusa’s cynicism is relevant. Italy is throwing all the cards in the air and when they land the pack will look just the same. The only hope is that Renzi returns having learned the lesson of his first period in office and, instead of playing politics, enacts some real change.

Don’t bet on it, though.

Tim Hedges, The Commentator's Italy Correspondent, had a career in corporate finance before moving to Rome where he works as a freelancewriter, novelist, and farmer. You can read more of his articles about Italy here

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