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  • Published in Opinion

Matteo Renzi, the charismatic young mayor of Florence, was elected last December as leader of Italy's most powerful political organisation, the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) - the dominant faction in the current coalition government

Matteo Renzi is set to become the youngest Prime Minister of Italy. Alastair Stephens questions if he really is the Italian Tony Blair and why he is saving Berlusconi

"One can't believe impossible things." [said Alice]

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Of the impossible things that seem to happen in Italian politics, the vertiginous rise to power of Matteo Renzi to the post of Prime Minister without being elected to parliament, and the simultaneous, and not unconnected, resurrection of the politically undead Silvio Berlusconi, surely top the lot.

In becoming Italy’s youngest Prime Minister, Renzi has, at least in official terms, reached the highest political post in the land – the Presidency is nominally ceremonial, although it is currently held by the rather activist Giorgio Napolitano. The story of the hour in the world’s media is that the country has at long last found its Tony Blair.

At least this story has a certain amount of truth in it. Renzi has openly admitted his admiration of Blair, although tellingly after long Blair has been discredited in the eyes of most of the rest of the world and damned as a war-monger. He certainly has a similarly neoliberal agenda, even if he has the rather more difficult task of implementing it in the middle of an economic slump rather than at the height of a boom. If he succeeds he may be more Thatcher than Blair, or even more horrifyingly, an amalgam of the two. Like Blair, he has attempted to dress up neoliberalism as a necessary, modernising “reform” and his political rise as the advent of a new political generation.

Boundless ambition

Renzi’s astonishing rise is driven by his vast personal ambition and facilitated by the decrepit and discredited state of the Italian political elite. Although he was elected Secretary (the titular leader) of the centre-left Democratic Party in December, he has neither ever been elected to (or even stood for) parliament, nor ever served as a minister, both of which are generally held to be essential qualifications for the office of Prime Minister in western European countries. He may be the third Prime Minister in a row appointed to office without winning an election, but at least the previous two, Enrico Letta and Mario Monti, were political insiders who had served respectively in the government and the EU Commission.

Renzi’s most senior political role has been as Mayor of Florence, a post he has held only since 2009. The city of just 370,000 people may be renowned throughout the world for its beauty and figures such as Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Dante, but the fact is – although Florentines, who obviously love their bell tower, may be offended – the city was last of any great significance when they were resident.

Renzi has little experience of the world: he grew up, went to university, lived and finally served as Mayor in the same province. Perhaps this provincialism explains why he thinks it still acceptable to cite Blair as an inspiration, or thinks that it is cool to dress like the Fonz.

Palace coup

Yet last week, in a speech to the Democratic Party’s national committee, Renzi staged a palace coup against the sitting Prime Minister Enrico Letta. For months he had been criticising Letta, although they are both being members of the same party. Such a manoeuvre is a gamble for Renzi, who has consistently posed as someone outside the normal Italian political establishment, which, along with Beppe Grillo, he decries as “the caste”. He has revelled in the nickname of “the Demolisher” (rottamotore).

Renzi may currently be the most popular politician in the country, but two thirds of Italians say they are against having yet another unelected Prime Minister.

But seizing the ultimate prize was the logical next step for someone whose rise to the heart of national politics over the last eighteen months has been based more on expectation and momentum than any real record. Renzi has positioned himself perfectly as the acceptable face of neoliberal reform. Whether he was ready for the final push, and whether it was wise for him to grasp power in a manner which Machiavelli might have approved of, was less important than the clamour of the country’s business leaders for change at the top.

Carlo de Benedetti, one of the country’s elite business leaders, reportedly said at an event in Turin: “The change came after a rather abnormal piece of pyrotechnics but I wouldn't waste too much time on the whys and hows of it all. The problem is this: Can he help get the country moving again? ...If he can, the way the change happened will be forgotten. If he can't, that is all that will be remembered.”

The left’s electoral disaster

His first bid for power was in 2012 when he entered the primaries to be the centre-left candidate for Prime Minister in the upcoming general election. He toured the country in a camper van making a name for himself, clearly having already lost interest in the government of the city that he had run for only three years.

He came second to the Pier Luigi Bersani, the dour, even dull, party apparatchik, who is close to the leadership of the CGIL trade union federation, and supposedly the more left of the two. Nevertheless, he got 35% to Bersani’s 44%. Renzi then began a series of personal attacks on Bersani, sometimes open, sometimes veiled, which continued more or less until Bersani’s resignation as party leader in April 2013.

Bersani’s election campaign was a disaster. The centre-left coalition, Italia Bene Comune (Italy Common Good) started the campaign well ahead in the polls. And it should have done: his rivals for the post of PM were Mario Monti and Silvio Berlusconi. The 70-year-old Monti, a neoliberal economist and former European Commissioner, was foisted on the country as Prime Minister in late 2011 by the money markets. He proceeded to inflict on the country a lot of economic pain for no apparent gain.

The man he had ousted as PM was none other Silvio Berlusconi, the great survivor of Italian politics. Although Berlusconi wanted to reclaim the post, he did not look likely to be able to regain his previous preeminence. He was soiled by his previous administration’s failure to do anything about the country’s dire economic state and greatly damaged by trials for corruption and sleeping with an underage prostitute. The trials revealed a court around him of such coarseness and vulgarity that even the normally staid Conference of Italian Bishops was forced to comment on it.

The election should have been a shoe-in for the centre-left. All it had to do was articulate people’s anger at Monti’s unwanted and useless program of austerity and their disgust with the political elite. But Bersani did no such thing. Instead he spent the campaign back-peddling and promising that Monti’s “reforms” would be continued. His ratings slipped continuously as Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party (PdL) and newcomer Beppe Grillo’s Five Star party (M5S) attacked austerity from both left and right. The result was a debacle for the Democrats and a deep crisis for the political system, a crisis which has yet to dig itself out from.

Political paralysis

The election was technically a victory for Bersani’s coalition, which received 55% of the seats in the lower house of parliament under the Berlusconi-inspired electoral law known as the “Porcellum” (pig law). However, Bersani’s alliance received only 29.53 % of the vote, a hair’s breadth ahead of Berlusconi’s 29.18 %, and little more than Five Star’s 25.09%.

Given the refusal of Grillo’s party to either join, or even allow the PD to form, a government, the result was deadlock. The only options were either to go to the country again under the same electoral law, and risk a similarly indecisive vote, or for the Democrats and Berlusconi’s PdL to form a grand coalition government, which practically everyone opposed. However, the latter option won out, and a government was formed under Enrico Letta, a 47-year-old PD deputy (indecently young by the standards of Italian politics) and nephew of PdL leader Gianni Letta.

Forming a government with Berlusconi and his party of sycophants, lackeys and former neo-fascists was simply too much for many Democrats, especially following the electoral disaster. The party almost exploded. Thousands quit, tearing up party cards, and the youth wing of the party launched Occupy PD, staging protest sit-ins at their own party’s offices. Bersani quit as Secretary, leaving the party leaderless.

Meanwhile, Nichi Vendola’s left wing SEL party (Left, Ecology, Freedom) which had been part of Bersani’s coalition and which had supplied the Speaker of the lower house, left to go into opposition. At least Vendola had the good grace to admit that without the coalition they would not have won any seats in parliament (the other left parties, which hadn’t joined Italia Bene Comune lost all theirs).

The Letta government has survived despite Belsuconi’s self-interested gyrations (of which more below) but it has not lived up to anyone’s expectations. Most Italians have continued to get poorer, the economy has stagnated and youth unemployment has remained at the 40% mark. Although it has continued to implement spending cuts, the amount of actual neoliberal reform it has managed to push through has been minimal.

The way was open for Renzi. In the run-off election for leader of the PD in December he received 67% of the vote among party supporters. However, he had only got 45% amongst party members in the first round. Notably, the election was an all-male line-up.

Italy’s Blair-Cameron?

How has this relative newcomer risen so far and so fast in a political system run by old men (Bersani is 63, Berlusconi is 78, President Napolitano is 88, and even the upstart Grillo is 65)? It is both counterintuitive and eminently predictable. There is much of both Blair and Cameron about him. Like them, he is young and unproven and does not seem to fit his own party.

The PD was created through a series of mergers, but its core is the former Communist Party (the largest in Europe) which gathered around it some of the old liberal, centre parties and fragments of the once dominant ruling class, the Christian Democrats.

Renzi’s father was a local councilor for the Christian Democrats in their home town of Rignano sull'Arno, in the province of Florence whose politics are dominated by the left. It may be more than a coincidence that Tony Blair’s father, Leo, was a Conservative in the Labour-dominated county of Durham.

In a region where a young person interested in politics or social activism would normally join the Young Communists or one of the party’s linked cultural associations, such as the 1.5 million strong ARCI, Renzi decided to join the Scouts. On finishing university he went to work in the family firm, a marketing company.

Renzi’s career in politics started as a member of the Popolari, one of the successor parties to the Christian Democrats, which would eventually merge into the PD. In 2004, at the age of 29, he ran for and won the presidency of the province (equivalent of a county) of Florence. At 33 he entered the primaries to be the centre-left candidate in the election for Mayor of the city Florence.

This led to a confrontation with the big-wigs of the local PD. Renzi’s candidacy upset the patriarchal and gerontocratic order of precedence, which still dominates Italian politics and much of society as well. He was told to “wait his turn”. He didn’t. He won the primary, the only election that really mattered in a city that has been run by the left since the early 1970s.

Neoliberal with a left face

Like those of Blair and Cameron, the economic policies advocated by Renzi are thoroughly neoliberal. Like them, he dresses them up in vague talk of “change” and “modernisation” and sweetens the sour taste of this medicine with some socially liberal sugar. While favouring things such as civil partnerships for LGBT people and artificial insemination – still a highly controversial issue in Italy – he is relentlessly neoliberal and has attacked the Letta government for its slow pace of reform.

Renzi wants to fund tax cuts out of “efficiency savings” in public spending. He has declared that tax cutting is a “thing of the left”. He thinks that Monti saved the country. He chose a McKinsey economist as his chief adviser and thinks that state services such as the post and the railways should be sold off, which would threaten disaster in a mountainous country quite dependent on its railways, and which are, unlike so many other things in Italy, both efficient and cheap. He also wants to cut job protection and the “cost” to business of employing workers.

His attitude to even the moderate social democrats in the party is brutally dismissive. When asked about a comment made by Stefano Fassina, the standard bearer of the soft left, and a minister for the economy in Letta’s government, Renzi contemptuously replied “who?” Fassina resigned, the first to fall in what might become a long list.

Another impossible thing: Renzi resurrects Berlusconi

Renzi’s rise began to intersect with the story of Berlusconi’s improbable political resurrection. In late January, Renzi received Berlusconi as an honoured guest at the headquarters of the PD. In a way it was a reverse performance of a notorious visit Renzi had himself made for audience with “Il Cavaliere”, as he is known, at his mansion in Arcore in 2012. Berlusconi was said to have told friends that Renzi reminded him of himself. Later, during the 2012 campaign for the centre-left candidacy, Berlusconi said that he has always felt in tune with Renzi, and reaffirmed his endorsement: “Renzi carries forward our ideas under the banner of the Democratic Party”.

This time, after two hours of talks Renzi announced that they were in “profound agreement” and had agreed a set of changes to the electoral law and constitution. The proposed electoral law is as fiendishly complicated as its predecessor. Its main provisions are as undemocratic as the “porcellum”, which it will replace. Its closed electoral lists will give voters no choice of candidate, and the “winner’s premium” and other mechanisms will keep smaller parties out of parliament. The provisions are mutually beneficial. They will allow Berlusconi to avenge himself on the traitors led by Alfano and stymie his right-wing rivals, and they will help Renzi to finally eliminate the parties to the left of the PD from parliament.

Renzi and Berlusconi also agreed to other measures to strengthen the executive, such as abolishing the Senate and stripping the regions of some of their powers.

The undead refuse to die

Berlusconi’s political revival is probably the most impossible thing to ever happen in Italian politics. Last year he was convicted of having sex with an underage prostitute and using the office of Prime Minister to cover it up. He was sentenced to seven years in jail. He is however appealing against the decision, a process that could take many years.

In any other country his political career would have been killed off by this case. The trial proceedings themselves revealed a court at Arcore populated by innumerable prostitutes and procurers, sycophants, drug dealers, pole dancers, strippers dressed as nuns and “bunga bunga” parties. It was less Medici and more Caligula. However, Italian politics is so suffused by misogyny that even this mud doesn’t stick. Recently, for example, a Five Star Deputy, Massimo Felice de Rosa, declared in parliament: “you D[emocratic] P[arty] women are only here because you give good blow jobs”. Rubygate has effectively been kicked into the long grass.

The deadliest blow to Berlusconi was his conviction for corruption, which finally rumbled through to its last appeal. It was the one charge of the 32 cases against him that he did not manage to evade through the statute of limitations, various other maneuvers, or even by simply changing the law.

In theory, he should have immediately been removed from his seat in the Senate, under the Severino law that was passed in 2012 with the support of the PdL. There followed months of crisis as Berlusconi threatened to pull the political house down in order to get his conviction overturned. His party launched a series of bizarre maneuvers to try and get him a pardon. Extraordinary attacks were launched on the Supreme Court and the judges.

Despite getting all those under his control to ask the President for a pardon, Berlusconi refused to show any remorse himself, the usual condition for a pardon in Italy, as everywhere else. In fact, he appeared in a 16 minute video, shown in full on his TV channels, in which he declared “I am innocent, totally innocent”.

Despite pledging that his personal woes should not affect the governance of the country, Berlusconi changed his mind when the desired pardon proved not to be forthcoming. He threatened to bring down the government and ordered the PdL ministers to resign. He then faced a rebellion inside his own normally obsequious party. He was forced to U-turn again, and in the vote of confidence he ordered his MPs to vote in favour of the government.

Determined to regain control of his party, he split it, reforming his old Forza Italia party. His previous loyal bag-carrier and latter-day rebel, Angelo Alfano, split away with 29 Deputies and 31 Senators to form the New Centre Right party. The main figure of the neo-fascist right of the PdL, Alemano, had already left in October, possibly to set a new version of Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance party, which was swallowed up by PdL when they merged. Fini was himself later to be spat out, and lost his seat in last years election.

On 25 November, only days before the vote that finally expelled Berlusconi from the Senate he led his MPs in voting against the Letta government in a vote of confidence in parliament.

However Alfano’s defection meant he could not bring Letta down as he had Monti. His spell over Italian politics was fading. He seemed to have been finally put out of the country’s misery. Until Renzi helped the dead to arise one more time that is.

An end to impossible things

Renzi and the political class may have overstretched themselves with yet another palace coup. At the moment Renzi is popular, but this may not last long. Both Monti and Letta were greeted with similar laurels. Public opinion can be fickle, especially when the whole political class is held in such low esteem. It would not take much for him to move from hero to zero.

He may well come to regret giving a hand-up to Berlusconi, whose power lies in not only his demagoguery but his vast media empire, which no government has ever dared touch. Nevertheless, Berlusconi’s power now seems to be only to disrupt and block. He has utterly failed to do anything constructive for anyone other than himself in his two decades in office.

The economic crisis is deep and ongoing, and the political system is profoundly broken. The workers movement may be weak, but so is the ruling class. It may have run out of impossible things to do. This may open a space for the movement to finally achieve the possible.

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.

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