Thanks to Alessandro Tommasi of our network partner firm Cattaneo Zanetto in Rome for his insights
This past February, Italian politics were rocked by a series of changes which eventually led to the youngest government in Italy’s history. The changes began last December when the 39 year old mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, was elected the head of the centre-left Democratic Party (PD) on a platform promoting change and new blood in Italian politics. The PD was also in power at the national level, having replaced Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia led coalition with Prime Minister Enrico Letta.
Renzi rose to the top spot through internal turmoil within the PD. In February, Prime Minister Letta’s coalition fell from power after a vote of no confidence. Subsequently, Renzi, who had never been elected to Parliament – and is, in fact, younger than the minimum age of forty required by law to take a seat – received votes of confidence from both the Italian House and Senate. He was then able to put together a somewhat unusual coalition which included members of Berlusconi’s party as well as members of the anti-establishment 5 Star movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo.
Observers both inside and outside of Italy were concerned after Renzi’s rapid ascent to the Palazzo Chigi; however, the markets and public opinion soon calmed and a massive win in the EU Parliamentary elections for the PD in May sealed the government’s legitimacy. As mentioned, the government is the youngest ever formed in Italy, which was previously best known for a series of gerontocracies. It also contains the most women to ever assume Ministerial positions.
The Cabinet is composed of eight male and eight female Ministers. Two especially notable ministers are the Foreign Minister, Federica Mogherini, and the Defense Minister, Roberta Pinotti. Mogherini has been discussed as a potential replacement for Catherine Ashton as the next EU foreign policy chief and Pinotti is the nation’s first female Defense Minister – and who, Italian pundits say, could take the place of 89 year old President Giorgio Napolitano due to her well known her capacity for political maneuvering and leadership skills. Both women are young – 41 and 53 years of age, respectively – and represent a new Italian generation.
If nothing else, the amount of women in positions of power symbolizes true change in Italian politics, despite the accusations of critics that Renzi is playing the “pink card” and blatantly appealing to women voters. Prior to the Renzi government, Italy had suffered one of the most unequal gender representations in European politics.
As noted, the European Parliament elections, which the PD won with 41 percent, legitimized the party. Others, such as Grillo’s 5 Star party, which took less than expected with 18 percent of the vote, stumbled. This gave the Renzi government the opening to consolidate its support, and granted Italy as a whole more clout within the EU, since the Italian PD bloc is now one of the largest within the EU’s centre-left ruling coalition. In Italy it is hoped that this will enable the country to finally influence EU policy, instead of being influenced by it.
In particular, Renzi has argued that austerity is not working, and that Italy should move away from it and towards more growth-stimulating policies. This will, however, require coalition building within the EU to change other nation’s opinions. Thus far, the Renzi government appears to have much better relations with both the French and German governments than its predecessor. This is partially due to the legitimacy which the recent elections brought and partially due to the new energy and young faces in the government. The PD’s win occurred immediately before Italy took the rotating EU presidency and so there is hope that this will also enable favorable policy changes.
Yet among these apparently positive changes there are concerns. The most pressing is the issue of whether the Renzi government has the ability to push through much needed reforms within Italy – much less impact the course of European policy. So far the government has announced many such reforms, but few seem to be moving forward; by announcing reforms publicly before discussing them with other branches of government, some argue, Renzi is trying to strong arm opposition into agreement.
One of the most complicated reforms would be the restructuring of the entire government by dismantling the bicameral system and reducing the number of parliamentary seats. Currently, between the House and the Senate Italy has 1000 Deputies for its 61 million people – the 314 million people of the US, by contrast, are represented by 535 total congressional representatives.
This reform is meant to streamline the Italian government. Under the current laws, the House and Senate have the same powers and each has to approve every law and amendment, leading to massive delays. Removing the Senate and devolving its powers to the regions could reduce much of the red tape bedeviling Italy’s political process, but reform is, predictably, moving slowly.
One of the smaller and odder recent efforts of the government has been the nationwide “bonus” of 70-100€ (on average 80€) each month, paid out through workers’ pay checks. Launched on May 27th, the money is supposedly left over from over taxation, and the government hopes it will stimulate the economy. In early July, the Italian media was reporting widely that many Italians said that they looked forward to spending their bonus during the summer sales.
The bonus policy is ultimately representative of the state of Italian politics: both optimistic and opportunistic. Some cynical observers have noted that the first bonuses were distributed just two days after EU elections in which the PD emerged triumphant. In a country beset by deep structural problems, such a short term fix begs the question of whether Italian politics are truly changing, or if they have simply put a younger face on an old game.