Can Europe Make It?

Italy: search for stability or authoritarian drift?

Italy has a recent history which tends to make it resistant to the very concept of “stability”, and the idea of a politically stable apparatus. This inevitably raises the spectre of a possible authoritarian drift.

Carlo Ungaro
16 April 2015

Matteo Renzi. Flickr/Valerio Ianci. All rights reserved.For the past few months the European political scene has been dominated by Ukraine, Greece and the issue of terrorism. As an inevitable result, attention has moved away from Italy and its apparently fruitless search for political stability.

The current trends in the Italian political scene need to be viewed in light of the fact that the Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, although never elected to the Italian Parliament, has led his party to an astounding 41% of the vote in last May’s European elections, and that, according to recent opinion polls, his rate of approval, though dropping, is still over 35%.

No political party or leader in the history of the Republic has ever enjoyed such a position of voter confidence since the early fifties and even that master vote-getter, Silvio Berlusconi, who held sway over Italian politics for the past two decades, never got much past the 30% mark.

Renzi, whose ideological position can, at best, be described as nebulous, is an example of Italy’s new generation of Roman Catholic politicians. Even if he is constantly being compared to Berlusconi, far from boasting of his amorous conquests, he frequently speaks of his past as a boy scout. His one claim to fame before he went into politics and becoming the “youngest ever” Mayor of Florence, was his appearance on a nationally televised quiz-show.

For this personable youngster, the event marked a fundamental turning point. The show’s MC, late Italian-American showman Mike Buongiorno, who introduced the concept of quiz shows to Italian Television and was also close to the Roman Catholic political hierarchy (two sins for which, it can only be hoped, he is being called to account in his after-life), took the young Matteo Renzi under his protective wing, thus directing his steps toward a political career.

In attempting to understand the Italian political scene, it would seem essential, first of all, to answer a fundamental question: “who is Matteo Renzi?”.

The meteoric rise to national fame and finally to political power - he is both Prime Minister and Secretary of the majority Democratic Party - of an unelected, and virtually unknown individual, in the face of furious, often disloyal opposition, mostly from within his own party, certainly indicates a strong and ruthlessly determined personality who does not seem destined to be a ‘flash in the pan’ phenomenon.

He also appears to possess that innate touch of showmanship which, until the arrival of Berlusconi in 1994, was sorely lacking in Italian politicians and which, as yet, does not seem to be fully appreciated by the majority of the old guard, some of whom don’t seem to realise that they are probably confronted by a political juggernaut against which traditional means of resistance are futile.

Seen in a positive light, all of this could imply that, after two particularly disastrous decades, Italy is finally headed for political stability. A sharp contrast to the volatility which has beset Italian Governments (about sixty of them, one of which lasted about seven days) ever since the foundation of the Republic in 1948.

Italy, however, has a recent history which tends to make it resistant to the very concept of “stability”, and the idea of a politically stable governmental apparatus. This inevitably raises the spectre of a possible authoritarian drift. It is somewhat ironic that the alarm was raised by none other than Silvio Berlusconi, whose declared ambition, while in Government, was precisely aimed at the attainment of greater power.

Alarm is caused by the two most relevant of the many “reforms” that Renzi is attempting to introduce – with considerable likelihood of success – through a Parliament which seems mesmerised by his dynamic approach and terrified at the very idea of having to face a General Election.

The first of these reforms concerns the elimination of one of the two branches of Parliament, the Senate, which would be replaced by a rather ill-defined body loosely modelled on the German Bundesrat. In a society such as Italy, this opens up likely vistas of “unpaid” nominees, selected through the murky processes so typical of this country’s political scene, yielding considerable occult influence and remaining accountable only to the governing powers and not to a non-existent electorate.

The second “reform”, which critics fear could pave the way for an authoritarian deviation, is centred on the electoral law, which needs to be changed by order of the Constitutional Court. The current electoral law does not allow the elector to express a choice on the name of the elected parliamentarians, who are, instead, chosen arbitrarily by the party leaders and are therefore accountable only to them should they wish to seek re-election.

The current projected law is, according to critics, even more restrictive. Not only are candidates chosen and submitted to the electorate by the party leaders, but the party which achieves the relative majority in an election obtains a significant “premium” in parliamentary seats. Thus rules Parliament with an absolute, unassailable majority for the duration of the Legislature.

In the days of the  so-called “First Republic”, Italian elections were held according to a proportional system. This was thought to be the primary cause of instability and was subsequently subjected to modifications tending towards  “majority” or “first past the post” rules. All of these systems presented defects and caused problems, but maintained a direct link between the electorate and the elected, which has now almost ceased to exist and which will become even weaker through the new proposed electoral law.

The preceding systems also made the Government accountable to Parliament, which could cause its own dissolution and the need for new elections by denying its vote of confidence. This is unlikely to happen if the Parliamentarians’ re-election depends exclusively on the will of the party leaders. It is, in fact, scarcely credible that Parliamentarians, elected to their well-paid  positions through the benevolence of their party leader (who will also be Prime Minister), will cause the downfall of the Government, thus ensuring their leader’s hostility and virtually certain exclusion from future electoral lists. 

This, of course, will contribute to greater “stability”, but risks also greatly to weaken – indeed, almost eliminate – the system of “checks and balances” which is at the heart of any truly democratic form of government.

This alone could suffice as a warning.The situation is further aggravated, however, by the perennially sycophantic attitudes of the Italian media (electronic and printed), which is imbued with an instinct for hagiography in favour of those who appear to have a firm grip on power for the foreseeable future. This certainly does nothing to allay the fears currently being raised by the Renzi Government’s lust for  Constitutional “reforms”.

The Italian mainstream media, – if one makes exceptions for smaller, minority newspapers or radio stations on the extreme left or right, appears reluctant to express critical views on a personality with a firm long-term grip on power. One never, for example, reads even the slightest hint of critical appraisal of the Pope or the President of the Republic (elected for a seven year mandate).

On the contrary, these personalities are treated with an obsequious reverence which perhaps goes beyond their own wishes.

Since there is no Constitutional provision limiting the number of consecutive mandates an elected Prime Minister can seek, it will be in the interest of those who manage the mainstream media to instil a favourable attitude in the electorate, thus ensuring the longest possible run for a Prime Minister who will become more and more beholden to the good will and support of the media and the economic and political powers behind it.

This will most probably bring about a period of “stability”, but in Italy the concentration of power in the hands of a single leader over a long period could be dangerous, and the risks appear to outweigh any possible benefits.

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