Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Matteo Renzi. The New-Old Government

Once again, it’s the Genoese comic, Maurizio Crozza who has taken the best measure of “Italy’s mayor”, the former mayor Florence, Matteo Renzi. He has been imitating the ambitious young local administrator for almost two years now and identified his key features as his youth and lack of clear programme. Renzi follows the Florentine stereotype as a honey-tongued talker always with the sharp and witty reply ready but usually signifying nothing. He’s often compared to an Italian Tony Blair (43 when he became prime minister, and above all someone who made the Labour Party into a winner).

Renzi was born in 1975, and joined the left wing of the Christian Democratic party (the Italian Popular Party - PPI) in 1996 which then morphed and made up part of today’s Democratic Party (PD). He was elected president of the province of Florence in 2004 and served his five year term standing for mayor of the city in 2009 and winning. In late 2012, he made his bid for a national position when he stood unsuccessfully for the leadership of the Democratic Party against Pierluigi Bersani (presumed to be the safe and reliable, and above all left wing candidate). A year later, after Bersani’s failure to secure a working majority in the February 2013 elections, he stood again and won in December 2013 with PD members prepared to vote any candidate that they thought could win.

It was clear from the beginning that Renzi had his sights on the prime minister’s job but for two months made reassuring noises which convinced no one. The most famous one was his January tweet “Enrico [Letta] stai sereno” which has become a byword for a stab in the back, creating anxiety and not being serene. He struck in mid-February and by 21st. was prime minister in an operation which the Gianfranco Pasquino described as being carried out with “coldness and nastiness” . He had had the nod from President Napolitano who didn’t want to split the PD with a no-confidence debate and vote. At 39 years and 6 weeks (6 weeks younger than Mussolini), he is the youngest Italian prime minister ever, and like Mussolini did not lead his party to a victory in the popular vote but then neither did his two predecessors, Enrico Letta and Mario Monti.

Once nominated, he raised eyebrows with his relaxed attitude, addressing the Chamber with a hand in his pocket. More important was the list of proposed reforms, a new electoral law by the end of February (along with constitutional reform and the abolition of the Senate; a tall order), employment in March, civil service in April, fiscal system in May, then justice.

These are all old favorites; the only innovation seems to be to call the employment reform “Jobs Act” in English (sometimes singular, “Job Act”) as if proposing a labour market reform and employment encouragement measures in English rather than a banal Italian politica dell’occupazione made a big difference.

Three weeks into the government, the Renzi tornado has yet to show any concrete effects, hardly surprisingly. The electoral law reform is already bogged down and the promises of having it passed in the Chamber by the end of the week, are just that, promises. The other promises are vague, and expensive with no indication of how the programme will find its financial cover . The language was certainly new and different, one commentator called it “north American”.

The government itelf is a paradoxical mixture; the cabinet at 16 members, half women and the youngest ever, is unique in age, size and gender. In contrast, the 45 junior ministers are an object-lesson in old-fashioned spoils-sharing, a classic example of the so-called Cencelli manual which divided the ministerial posts according to a combination of prestige and vote-gathering capacity.

The flaws and fragility of the new goverment were shown last week when one of the undersecretaries, Antonio Gentile of Cosenza was shown to have pressured a local paper into not publishing the news of his son’s indictment on serious charges. There is a recording of a conversation between the paper’s printer and the journalist who wrote the piece; not a word is actionable but the whole 15 minutes is a not very veiled threat and an object lesson in how and why it is not necessary to say “I’ll smash your face in if you don’t comply”. Only this time, the threats bounced back and now the whole country knows about Gentile junior’s indictment instead of just the readers of a small local, paper newspaper and Gentile senior was indeed forced to resign. We don’t know what the pay-off was, if there was one but to lose a minister after less than a fortnight is more than careless on Renzi’s part.

On the positive side, Renzi took the PD into the European Socialist Party, firmly anchoring it in the European socialdemocratic family another reflection of Blair’s shift of Labour from left to centre left.

But Renzi’s biggest problems are the usual demon trio which creates obstacles for reforms anywhere: cabinet and parliament management and mediation (the easiest to overcome as we have seen) but even so, the Gentile episode has already shown the difficulty and this week’s electoral reform bill has already shown Renzi’s limits. He has shown that he can juggle variable majorities for different measures, dealing with Berlusconi’s opposition Forza Italia at the same time as his coalition ally and Berlusconi’s former deputy, Angelino Alfano’s Nuovo Centrodestra. Secondly mediating with other European leaders. None is prejudicially against him and all want to see Italy succeed but he has little experience. It is significant that Letta visited Merkel, Barroso and Draghi in his first three days as prime minister, Renzi so far has only seen European Socialist leaders. Thirdly, the biggest obstacle and not just for Italian leaders, is the implementation of reforms by the ministerial bureaucracy after a law has been passed in Parliament.

Renzi has said that he wants his government to last till its natural term in 2018 but neither he nor anyone else are holding their breath.