Listening to Italy
2016 and 2017 have been electoral bonanza years and more follow in 2018. The Italian press deliberate about Brexit but with so many other electoral issues of immediate relevance, the UK election is an insignificance. Currently the two most important political figures in Italy are Matteo Renzi, ex-Premier, ex-Secretary of the centre-left Partito Democratico (Pd) and Beppe Grillo, comedian and party leader of the 5 Star Movement (M5S). The Pd and M5S have been level in the polls for some time.
Renzi (42) identifies with France’s Emmanuel Macron (39), as he also did with Tony Blair. All have had early political success and present as having a charismatic and dynamic media presence. Indeed, as long ago as January Renzi, and his old, right-wing ally Silvio Berlusconi, were reported to have resurrected their earlier secret plotting in order to “construct an Italian Macron”. Angela Mauro of huffpost.italia (24.04.17) defined the two as: “Macron says he is not right or left. Renzi moves between left and right”. Matteo Salvini of the fascist-leaning Lega Nord was as unenthusiastic about Macron as he is about Renzi: “Macron is the new fake.”.
Renzi is currently in political transit. He resigned (from both posts noted above) after losing a national referendum on constitutional changes. Both he and Cameron shared a strong feeling of disbelief at their respective defeats. In Renzi’s case he had clearly misjudged his lack of public esteem – the result of his forcing of policies through parliament with the help of Berlusconi and his right-wing Forza Italia (Fi) Party. Following his referendum defeat Renzi took time out from politics and President Mattarella selected Paolo Gentiloni to head the government.
The undistinguished Gentiloni is widely portrayed as Renzi’s puppet. The essayist and logician Piergiorgio Odifreddi recently expressed his disillusionment with Gentiloni because of his enthusiastic attitude towards Donald Trump. To Odifreddi he had displayed an ignorance of the subtleties of European solidarity by not treating Trump as Merkel had. Instead he had shamed Italy by being warm while Merkel had been demonstrably cold. In his opinion, this diminished Italy internationally to the status of “a banana republic”
Gentiloni has several serious impending crises to resolve. One of these demands strong leadership for its immediate resolution: Ludicrously, the bankrupt Italian state is heavily subsidising the loss-making airline Alitalia. Alitalia’s staff recently voted in a referendum not to accept job and salary cuts as a prelude to recapitalisation. Other airlines have expressed interest in buying Alitalia.
The EU’s demand for tangible resolution to the Italian budget deficit is also imminent. In the last week of April President Mattarella called for very swift parliamentary action to complete the final draft and obtain parliamentary approval to the constitutional and electoral laws. Italy must have an active constitution and a valid election cannot be run without them. Technically a general election must be held by 2018 but Mattarella became justifiably impatient that the pace to resolve matters had dithered to a halt. Perceptions of the country’s stability within the EU also had to be maintained and a credible position of financial probity had to be provided to the credit rating agencies.
Renzi sees that this is a second chance for him to lead both the Pd and Italy. He can not resist grasping the role of making a decisive stance nationally and internationally. He is unafraid of reawakening the unpopularity that he courted by making alliances with Berlusconi. He aims to confront the EU over the deficit in the head-on way that he ran the party and country. According to Marco Damilano in Espresso (05.04.17) Renzi has already decided that it is better “to open a political confrontation to pave the way for radical change in the rules of the game…preparing to bombard the old European institutions from outside in the coming months.”
Renzi envisages that he will start this come-back after he wins the elections to lead the Pd on 30 April. (This article went to press before this date). Renzi has bags of confidence. During the long run up to these primaries Pd members discussed different tactics, including running the poll in the autumn of 2017. This would work in favour of the emergence of fresh candidates and a choice of someone other than Renzi. But Renzi’s choice of a Spring poll won and left wingers split to form another party, the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP). Renzi then declared himself as a leadership candidate for the remaining part of the Pd
Two unlikely winners lined up to oppose him: Andrea Orlando, Minister of Justice (opinion polls gave him a maximum 23% of votes), and Michele Emiliano, President of Apulia (max 31%). Emiliano’s pitch criticised Renzi’s centrist, right-leaning stance and this view is widely supported within and without the party. Ezio Mauro, the respected La Repubblica editor wrote despairingly about the Italian political scene, where “there are no great figures with personality and leadership, (to provide) a battle of ideas that can give a cultural horizon to political confrontation.” (25.04.17). Emiliano’s election program said that Renzi, and his cabinet appointee Orlando, had drastically changed the party, abandoning people on low incomes. He wanted the party to get closer to the people, especially the poorest.
But Renzi is likely to win and it is predictable that, as the Italian judge and constitutionalist Gustavo Zagrebelski wrote in La Stampa (09.03.17), a return to Renzi’s slogans and empty words “will bring pitfalls to the Party”, which he contends will lose it its identity. He cites an example of a typical Renzi rallying call , (Trump, Farage etc. use similar phrases) “We Democrats love Italy”. Ezio Mauro’s La Repubblica editorial written to commemorate Italy’s 25 April Liberation Day concluded by saying that to follow the path of “republican democracy” the country needs to continually remember “the choice of “resistance” to dictatorship”.
The M5S is the only other group that can mount a challenge to the Pd in a national election. As Orecchiette has said before, it is a Movement and a private company, run by the unelected Beppe Grillo and Davide Casaleggio, IT expert and son of the previous owner. It is not a democratic party, it might appear (unjustifiably) to have democratic elements but it is run as a dictatorship.
Evidence of this illusion of democracy was seen earlier this year in Genova. Marika Cassimatis was selected by the customary on-line members’ poll to be the mayoral candidate for elections in June. She won with 362 votes to 338. She has a doctorate in Geographical Sciences and had been a member since 2012. However, Grillo believed that she hadn’t followed the principles of M5S “before, during and after the selection” and he would not ratify her candidature. He said that he couldn’t support someone that he wasn’t 100% sure about and it had been “an impartial selection, strongly meritocratic”. Because she had signed the candidates’ form agreeing that M5S reserved the right to exclude people from the candidature, she was unable to mount a legal challenge. Whatever her suitability, the unavoidable point is that Grillo, rather than a selective group or elected party hierarchy, made the decision himself.
Exercising firm control over intelligent adults with elected responsibilities is an unrealistic organisational method in a western democracy. “North Korean,” said Luca Ciarrocca (Il Fatto Quotidiano. 08.03.17). If M5S does win a General Election Grillo has suggested that the likely Premier will be the current 30 year old Vice President of the Chamber of Deputies, Luigi Di Maio. He is pushy, but oddly school-boyish and is always dressed slightly uncomfortably in a suit that lacks Italian poise. He has also, within the M5S that abhors corruption, been able to get away with avoiding the truth on a couple of notable occasions. Ciarrocca is scathing in his assessment of Di Maio’s suitability for such a role, “Zero political and work experience”. He continues to say that the Movement needs to stop being “the secret project of the invisible” and become a “grown-up party…..to stop the absolute absence of internal democracy “…. In fact as the headline emphasised: It must convene for the very first time a First National Congress, and move to a non-authoritarian structure or it will have a heavy handicap in the face of forthcoming elections.
The choice between the two Parties – Pd and M5S seems as impossible an electoral choice as those facing many other western countries. Ezio Mauro is equally despairing: “the fever of a diseased democracy infects the whole West”.