Past: Imperfect. Future:Tense.

posted by Geoff Andrews at Saturday, April 27, 2013

After more than two months of political stalemate arising from the inconclusive elections of 24-25 February, a new Italian government has been formed under the leadership of Enrico Letta, currently the Democratic Party’s (PD) Deputy Leader. There will be relief not only in Italy, but among its European partners and some optimism emanating from the composition of the new ministers. This includes a record number of women and the first black government minister, Cecile Kyenge, a doctor of Congolese descent, who becomes Minister of Integration. Notable appointments include Emma Bonino, long-standing member of the Radical Party to foreign affairs, and Anna Maria Cancellieri, as Justice Minister, whose reappointment will please Roberto Saviano, who has recognised some progress on anti-mafia reform. The appointment of Fabrizio Saccomanni, a close ally of Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank, will do much to calm the markets. Italy’s allies will surely give strong endorsement to the new government, but much uncertainty remains.

President Giorgio Napolitano has been quick to point out that this is Letta’s government, formed through negotiation with other political parties, notably Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) and Mario Monti’s centrist Civic Choice. However the imprint of Napolitano, appointed for an unprecedented second term as President at the age of 87, and who was impatient for the government to be formed and for it to get on with its business, is not difficult to see. ‘Our country and Europe could not wait any longer’ he said at the press conference to launch the new government. Several members of Mario Monti’s ‘technocratic’ government have survived, despite his alliance’s poor showing at the election and leading figures from the two main parties have not been included, with the exception of Angelino Alfano, Berlusconi’s protégé who becomes Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The average age of the ministers has been reduced to 53 and Letta himself at 46 is comparatively young in Italian terms, though well-grounded in the political establishment as a former minister and nephew of one of Silvio Berlusconi’s closest allies.

It is important to remember that for the time being the real victors of the election remain Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo. The left-right coalition government was Berlusconi’s original preference, with the prospect of early elections, while Grillo has been quick to see the convergence of the two main parties in office as confirmation of his view that the same discredited political class remains entrenched in power. The cost of this new right-left government was the implosion of the PD over the shambolic and protracted process of electing the ‘new’ President. This is a defeat which follows a long history of failure of the Italian left, from the transition from a mass Communist Party, through a ‘third way’ social democratic venture, to a party formed between conflicting ex-communist and ex-Christian Democrat interests. The rifts over the President’s election will not heal easily and the prospect of a realignment of the left, with part of the PD joining Nichi Vendola’s Left Ecology Party, remains on the cards. Matteo Renzi, the ‘Blairite’ Mayor of Florence, who was a pivotal and controversial figure in the election for President and the likely future leader of the PD, will also be assessing his next moves which could further increase the schism.

The composition of the new government has come as a welcome surprise to many commentators, some of whom have modified their predictions for early elections to a more optimistic prognosis that the government could last as long as two years. Much uncertainty and risk remains however. The policy priorities have yet to be revealed and Berlusconi’s ‘price’ for his support could, as in the past, prove fatal for Italy. He currently faces several trials and for many the prospect of long-term reform of public institutions, including the media and justice system, demand that Berlusconi’s conflict of interests are addressed. It seems that he remains in power if not in office. History has shown that he extracts a tough concession for his cooperation.

There is also the question of the economic strategy. Although widely welcomed in Europe, Mario Monti’s technocratic government achieved few real gains and became deeply unpopular at home which was confirmed by a disastrous performance in the election. It is not enough to appease bureaucrats and leaders in Europe. The government has to deal with an enormous problem of insecure work, lack of prospects and rapidly widening generational division. If the government fails to move beyond austerity to deliver growth, then it faces the prospect of a hot late summer and autumn and the rising anger of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement and a militant union opposition.