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The youngest face of Italy’s old politics: Enrico Letta’s “grand coalition”

Does Enrico Letta's newly formed government have what it takes to get Italy out of its dire situation, or is it nothing but a new layer of paint on the crumbling house of Italian politics?

Mario Pianta
30 April 2013
New Italian PM Enrico Letta. Demotix/Ruggero Delfini. All rights reserved.

New Italian PM Enrico Letta. Demotix/Ruggero Delfini. All rights reserved.

Enrico Letta (age 46) is the youngest face of Italy’s old politics. A centrist within the Democratic Party (PD), he has managed to put together a coalition government with the parties of Silvio Berlusconi (age 76) and Mario Monti (age 70), under the close direction of Italy’s newly re-elected president Giorgio Napolitano (age 87).

Letta's strengths include the close connections he has carefully built with the most powerful players, both internationally – the US government, the EU, international finance or influential think tanks such as the Trilateral Commission, etc. – and at home – Italian business and banks, the Vatican, the political and media elite. His network also includes family connections: Gianni Letta (78), Enrico's uncle, has been for decades one of the most skilful and sensible political advisors to Silvio Berlusconi.

Enrico Letta has scored a success in quickly forming a government supported by the “impossible coalition” between the right wing People of the Freedom, (PdL) and the centre-left Democratic Party, who have opposed each other in the starkest terms during the campaign leading up to the February election. Both parties had supported for a year and a half the “technical” government of Mario Monti (who ended up forming his own centrist party, but only got 11 percent of the votes) and have deeply suffered from this forced partnership imposed - at the peak of Italy’s financial crisis - by president Napolitano. The loss of credibility of the two major parties led to the unexpected success of the populist Five Star Movement of former comedian Beppe Grillo (25 percent of the votes).

Italy’s new government is founded on the reciprocal weaknesses of the PD and the PdL, again forced into a “marriage of necessity” by President Napolitano. This helped Enrico Letta form a government that combines a few strong figures of both parties, a record number of women – including former EU Commissioner Emma Bonino, who in the past has sided with both PdL and PD, as Foreign Minister, some little known backbenchers more acceptable to public opinion, and a few “technical” ministers – the Bank of Italy predictably presiding over the Ministry of Economy.

As public opinion remains highly critical of “old politics” – in the recent regional elections in Friuli-Venezia Giulia abstention reached 50 percent - the composition of Enrico Letta’s government appears as a workable compromise within established parties. What may be less workable is this government's actual policy.

A key priority – forced upon the next government by president Napolitano – will be the reform of Berlusconi’s tailor-made, but unworkable election system, although there is still no consensus on the voting arrangement that may emerge. The economic emergency is equally important - GDP may fall by 1.5 percent in 2013, after a 2.4 percent fall in 2012; industrial output is 25 percent below pre-crisis levels – but again no clear strategy exists, beside compliance with the EU's directions. The Letta government will be torn between the Bank of Italy’s pressure to pursue the austerity programme, Berlusconi’s efforts to cancel an unpopular real estate tax and the Democrats' demands for more support for those risking unemployment. Enrico Letta has long been a supporter of Europe’s austerity agenda, and of its implementation by Mario Monti’s previous government. He understands that some correction has now to be introduced, but it would be naïve to expect any significant change on the economic front.

On most issues Enrico Letta’s government shows such an unlikely mix, with no guarantee of stability. For example, attitudes towards immigrants – and granting of citizenship to their children – are equally contradictory amongst this coalition, in spite of the presence of the first black Minister in an Italian government, who is precisely in charge of integration. Letta's priority is in the (very) short term - his government is better than no government at all in the midst of Italy’s social emergency.

But such a compromise comes at a heavy price. The Democratic party is in ruins; secretary Pier Luigi Bersani has resigned after his failure to get the party’s candidates elected to the Presidency. The centrist wing (of Christian Democratic origin) and the social-democratic wing (of post-Communist descent) are bitterly fighting. Dozens of MPs have already stated that they will not support the Letta government. Rank and file activists are loudly protesting - debates on the web are raging – the U-turn from the “clean break” with the past promised in the election campaign to the coalition government of today, that includes granting Berlusconi a de facto immunity from his several judicial prosecutions.

Will Enrico Letta’s government face any opposition? Fortunately – and differently from Monti’s government – yes. The Five Star Movement is noisy but ineffective in denouncing such an unholy union. More interestingly, SEL (Left, Ecology, Freedom), the small party (3 percent of voters in the last election) led by openly gay politician Nichi Vendola broke its alliance with the Democratic Party after the election of Napolitano and the coalition with Berlusconi, opening up to a political realignment that may lead to something closer to a European-style left/social-democratic party.

In the meantime, Enrico Letta will navigate his government on a day-to-day basis, amidst a worsening economy and political confusion – hoping that Italy never moves closer to Greece (which has a similar government coalition); a collapse of politics and democracy in the face of economic decline and social turmoil on the battered periphery of Europe.

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